Published On: Tue, May 31st, 2016

Lone soldiers going home: Philippines

Around 3, 300 lone soldiers from abroad currently serve in the IDF. Most haven't seen their families in months. Shortly ahead of Independence Day, Yedioth Ahronoth and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) foundation came up with an idea: Give 4 of them a trip home, and surprise their loved ones. Part 1 of 4.

Isra-Li Shaked Kariazo with brothers and sisters (Photo Eli Segel)

 

After journeying for ten hours, we stopped at a small roadside restaurant on the way from Manila to Isabela. On the counter sat pots and pans containing traditional Filipino food. The racks were stacked with Pringles and cigarette boxes.

Within minutes, our table was filled with plates: Fried catfish and seaweed salad in fish sauce. There was also a Filipino omelet and white rice, without which a meal cannot truly be considered Filipino. In addition, we were served bulalo, a meat and vegetable dish, the likes of which we had never seen before.

For our photographer Eli and me, this was an exotic meal. But for Isra-Li Shaked Cariazo, it was home cooking. She served a helping onto her plate and said it reminded her of her mom, Yolanda, who died of cancer six years ago. “Only my mother would cook the bulalo much better. A bit sour.”

Born to a Filipino mother and a Thai father, Staff Sgt. Isra-Li Shaked Cariazo, 22, is the first of her kind to enlist in the IDF. She’s a combat soldier, serving in the Home Front Command’s search and rescue brigade, and has spent most of her service in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli-born, she grew up as a Catholic but sang traditional Hebrew songs during the Passover Seder, and even celebrated her bat mitzvah. “The Philippines also have an event that symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood, ” she said. “It is customary for the girl to wear red. That’s why I wore a red dress to my bat mitzva rather than a white one.”

The name Isra-Li was given to her by her mother, due to the latter’s love for the country in which she lived and worked for over twenty years. Her middle name, Shaked, was added by Isra-Li herself after she became a soldier and converted to Judaism. “These days, friends and siblings call me ‘Isra’, and my dad calls me ‘Isla’, because there’s no ‘R’ in Thai, ” she said. “I asked that they call me Shaked in the military, because many people find it hard to say ‘Isra-Li, ‘ and they end up mispronouncing the name.”

How Isra-Li became a combat soldier

It’s a complicated family story and one which is hard to process, especially for someone who looks at it through Israeli eyes. On the other hand, it’s emotional and inspires more than just a little hope.

In the late 1980s, Yolanda Cariazo moved to Israel to work, leaving behind five children from her first marriage, the youngest of whom was less than one year old. “I was eight then, ” her daughter Jheya, Isra-Li’s older sister, said. “The next time I saw mom was at age 12, when she came for a visit. It was very hard to grow up without a mother, but I know she moved to another country to take care of our future. Here, in the Philippines, those who don’t work abroad are nothing. In Israel, you can make ten times as much. That’s why we weren’t angry at her. We only got mad at our father. Instead of working hard to make a living for us, he sent mom to Israel.”

Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines(Photo Eli Segel)

 

In Israel, Yolanda met Kampai, a Thai citizen working as a chef. But even before Isra-Li was born, her mother told her, Kampai was deported. “He wanted us to move to Thailand, but mom wouldn’t do it, ” Isra-Li said.

The hard times kept coming. When Isra-Li was 13, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and died three years later. Isra-Li had to move in with a foster family – her then-teacher – with whom she has lived ever since.

Carrying that heavy load, she boarded an El Al flight to Bangkok with us, and from there, we continued on to Manila. The trip was part of an initiative by Yedioth Ahronoth, aided by Friends of the IDF (FIDF), and was meant to help Isra-Li go and meet her siblings, whom she hasn’t seen in years. The trip also gave her the opportunity to visit her mother’s grave. Her sister Jheya, 35, was the only one who knew about the trip in advance.

Jheya waited for her sister at the Manila terminal for hours with her husband and two small children – Adrian Joyce, 4, and Alexis, 2 – by her side. When she noticed Isra-Li she ran towards her as the two sisters who hadn’t seen each other for eight years embraced each other and burst into tears.

“I looked at her and saw our mother’s face, ” Jheya said. “The last time I met mom was before the disease. I was working in London then and couldn’t leave, because they wouldn’t have allowed me to come back. That’s why I didn’t attend the funeral. Ever since mom died, I’ve been asking Isra-Li who’s taking care of her all the time. I told her, ‘Come to the Philippines, this is your home and you have a family here.'”

“I have a home, ” Isra-Li comforted her sister. “My foster family is my home. They greeted me with open arms and a warm embrace.”

“At first I didn’t recognize you, ” said Jheya. “You have really long hair in all of the photos, and now it’s much shorter.” Isra-Li donated some of her hair to be made into wigs for cancer patients. “When mom was sick it was hard to get wigs made with real hair because it was expensive, ” she said. “I remember how she would get up every morning, see the hair that fell onto the pillow, and look in the mirror. That’s why I decided to donate.”

We walked towards the car that was waiting for us in the parking lot, with little Joyce running in front of us, making funny faces. Then, during the 14-hour trip to Isabela, she hardly left Isra-Li, speaking to her in Tagalog the entire time. “My Tagalog has gotten a lot better, because I’ve been watching the show ‘On the Wings of Love, ‘ a Filipino youth show broadcast on the internet, ” Isra-Li said.

She mostly spoke to her sister in English, using the long ride to catch up. “When my sister was drafted I told her it’s scary in the military, ” Jheya said. “But she calmed me down, saying she was going to be working in an office.” She then asked Isra-Li, “How is it that you ended up becoming a combat soldier?”

“I insisted on being a combat soldier in a Home Front Command company because at the time there were floods in the Philippines, and I saw the Home Front Command delegation going (there) to help, ” Isra-Li answered.

“But you told me you hated weapons, ” the older sister retorted. “These days, I go to sleep with my weapon, ” the younger sister answered.

 

Isra-Li and her family Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines(Photo Eli Segel) (2)

We were silly

It was an unending ride on a bumpy road. Even in the middle of the night, it was packed with trucks. Along the side of the road were fields of rice and coconut trees, posters of political candidates running in the then-upcoming elections. We drove past several small, open-all-night kiosks on the way, stopping by one of them to freshen up. On the table sat a bowl of innocent-looking eggs, which were actually balut – a local delicacy consisting of an egg, boiled while the chicken fetus is still inside. Jheya asked her sister if she’d like some, and Isra-Li, who had just given her nephew some instant noodles, said, “no way, ” bearing an expression of disgust on her face.

We arrived in Isabela at two in the afternoon, having left Manila at midnight. Our first stop was the home of Jancen, Isra-Li’s 29-year-old brother. Their sister Joanne, 36, had also come. A young man came out of the house and walked towards the car. Suddenly he stopped, an expression of shock on his face. A few seconds later he understood what was going on, ran towards his sister and gave her a hug. Tears flowed once more.

“I saw Jheya’s van stop by, and saw Isra-Li step out and run towards me, ” Jancen told us later. “I said to myself, ‘who’s that woman?’ and then I realized it’s my sister, whom I haven’t seen in six years. I’m still shocked. I have no words.”

“I told my siblings I was going to Manila to run some errands, and that later we would come over for a meal with the kids. I asked that they only make chicken, rice, and salad, and that they not make anything with pork, ” Jheya said. “Jancen was surprised, and asked, ‘What are you, a tourist?'”

Jancen admitted that he was indeed fooled.

Jancen and Isra-Li then sat on the stairs, holding hands and talking. Her eyes were teary. When she saw that we were taking photos she smiled awkwardly. Perhaps they were speaking about their mother. When she became sick, Jancen came to Israel to take care of her. In fact, he’s the only one of Isra-Li’s siblings who lived with her for a significant amount of time. “We were silly, ” she told us, “Jancen, do you remember how you’d splash water on me when I was at the computer, and I’d splash you in return?” she reminisced.

Isra-Li met her other siblings at the age of 13, when she visited the Philippines for her mother’s funeral six years ago. After the meal was over, Isra-Li’s brother Jun, 40, came over as well. Their sister Jubi, who works abroad, was the only one to not participate in the gathering. Isra-Li dressed up in her IDF uniform, including her orange Home Front Command beret, her rescuer pin, and her staff sergeant stripes – the only item missing was her M-16 rifle, which she could not bring. Her family still took a few group photos. All 13 of Isra-Li’s nieces and nephews were in the photo, the oldest being in his twenties, the youngest just two weeks old. Isra-Li held Jancen’s infant son, Ken, in her arms. When she was asked by one of her sisters how it felt to hold the baby, she joked, “I think I’ll put him in my suitcase and take him home with me.”

 

Isra-Li and her mother  Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines(Photo Eli Segel) (2)

We then went to Gia’s home in the nearby village to spend the night there. It’s not exactly a regular home, but a tin structure, which is also used by Jheya as an exhibit hall for the bridal dresses she designs. It had mannequins in the living room and a kiosk-restaurant located at the house entrance. The bathroom was in the yard. There was no running water – Jheya’s husband brings barrels of water to the house using a tractor. They take showers using a bucket. Occasionally, a farmer will pass by riding a buffalo. On the other hand, the family has two cars and a maid. And yes, she’s Filipino.

Isra-Li spent the first night with her sister and two nephews on mattresses they had placed on the floor. I asked her if the heat and flies bothered her and she laughed. For a moment, I’d forgotten that this was a combat soldier who’s been spending her time on the Jordanian border – the middle of the desert – for the past three months.

The next day, after eating a breakfast meal that included three different kinds of sausages, we went back to Jancen’s home, where the siblings gathered before going to visit their mother’s grave. Jancen pointed at the kitchen counter. The cupboard contained a fancy set of dishes engraved in a European style, seemingly belonging to a Polish home rather than a Filipino one. “This was our mother’s, in Israel, ” he said. A sports trophy was proudly displayed in the living room, silently boasting that the Filipino community in Haifa had won the national basketball tournament in the year 2000.

“My mother always worked to bring the Filipino community in Israel closer together, ” Isra-Li explained. “She opened a club for them. Each year, she’d organize the community’s beauty pageant, and was also the manager of the basketball team. She took care of everyone and helped everyone. Even people older than her called her mom.”

When she passed away, her children decided to bring her to rest in the Philippines. “Most years, she was in Israel, far from my siblings, and I said it would be coming full circle if she were closer to them, (if she were) to come home, ” Isra-Li explained. Her mother’s friends raised donations from community members in Israel, so that she and Jancen could fly to the funeral in their mother’s native land. The burial was accompanied by a catholic ceremony at the San-Manuel, Isabela cemetery.

To reach the burial plot, you need to pass through dry shrubs and construction wreckage, and go over a stone wall. The gravestone read, “Yolanda P. Cariazo, 1956-2010.” The kids climbed the gravestone like it was an amusement, and Isra-Li helped them up. “This way they’re closer to the grandma they never got to meet, ” she said. Yolanda’s children lit candles and prayed. While Jheya crossed herself, Isra-Li placed a small rock on the gravestone, explaining that it was the custom in Israel.

 

Isra-Li ,  Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines(Photo Eli Segel) (3)

“Each year, I light a candle at home in memory of my mom, ” she told us later. “This was the first time I lit a candle at the grave. I told her in my heart that I’m glad we get to meet again.”

Isra-Li was 16 when her mother died. She remained almost all alone in the world. “I was confused and didn’t know what I was going to do, but it was clear to me that I was staying in Israel. After some time, the social worker told me that there were three families who were interested being my foster families, and that I already knew one of them. It turned out to be my teacher, ” she recounted.

“On the morning when my mother died we were in a staff meeting, and the school counselor came in and told us about it, ” Isra-Li’s foster mother, who wished to remain anonymous, told us. “I asked if the kid had anywhere to go. Her brother was still in Israel, and they said she still had somewhere to stay, for now. I said that I’d give her a temporary home. After the funeral, they asked if I wanted to be her foster family. I said yes, but that it depended only on her. She stayed with me twice and then decided that she wanted to. The moment you let a kid into your house and give them a feeling of a warm home, they become part of the family. Isra-Li is like a daughter to me.”

Isra-Li sent a letter to her father in Thailand. “I told him mom had died, and a few weeks later, when I was on a school trip to Poland, he called. It was a moment before we went out from the hotel to visit one of the concentration camps. I knew it was dad immediately by how he pronounced my name, ‘Isla’. I started to cry. I told him what happened, but then I had to hang up. It was the second time in my life that I’d spoken to my dad. The first was when I was 12, and he called to wish me a happy bat mitzva. He said he loved me, and that he missed me and looked forward to seeing me. I didn’t yet feel the need to be in touch with him then, I didn’t know what a dad really meant.”

Isra-Li has only met her father once at age 20. “It was as part of the Strong Embrace project for lone soldiers. I flew to Thailand alone, thinking about how it’ll be the whole way over. I didn’t know whether to call him by his name, or ‘dad.’ I didn’t know how his family was going to greet me. I didn’t know if they were even aware I existed. My uncle picked me up at the airport, and we went to grandma’s house the next day. Dad was waiting at the entrance. I was shocked. I couldn’t say anything, so we just hugged. And cried. Later we went in, and then my aunt came in with a photo album. It turned out my mother would send him photos of me. There was an entire album with photos of me as a baby and child, and my and my mother’s maternity ward bracelets. And that’s what broke me, the bracelets. I really started crying then.”

A week before her trip to the Philippines, we met Isra-Li at the Arava Regional Brigade near Ein Yahav in southern Israel where her battalion is currently deployed. “I arrested a lot of wanted people in the Judea and Samaria region, ” she said. “There are security incidents, such as stone throwing, almost every day. I use a ‘Ringo, ‘ a grenade launcher that shoots tear gas grenades, a lot. We also had a stabbing attack in our sector and a Molotov cocktail (that was thrown) at a bus.”

“Shaked is a very gentle lady, ” Eden, her platoon-mate told us. “(She’s) Someone who puts on lotion. But when stones are thrown, she instantly becomes a rugged fighter.”

 

Isra-lee Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines(Photo Eli Segel) (2)

With her combat vest, helmet, and weapon, she looks more Israeli than most, but some still think it’s not enough. “Because of our appearance, people always say we don’t belong here. Even as a soldier it’s happened a lot. One day I was walking in the street in my uniform and someone yelled, ‘Goya! (‘non-jew’ in Hebrew) take that uniform off, go back to where you came from.’ And once, on the bus, someone stood in front of me and started saying ‘Filipino army, Filipino army, Filipino army.”

When asked what Isra-Li said to them, she told us, “I didn’t answer. I figured it was a waste of time. I know what I contribute to the country. I don’t need others to tell me ‘well done.'”

But the state wasn’t too eager to welcome her with open arms. In fact, she was given Israeli citizenship only after a lengthy stay in the IDF. “When I converted to Judaism, I went to the Ministry of the Interior to change my status from Christian to Jew, and while I was there I checked about getting Israeli citizenship. They told me, ‘if you want to be a citizen, you first need to spend 1.5 years in the military.'”

A year and a half later, she went back to the ministry. “I submitted the forms, and a week before Independence Day, the clerk called and said, ‘Sweetie, congratulations. Come get your citizenship’. There was no ceremony, they just updated my ID. Still, it was emotional.”

Now she’s in the Philippines. One month with her family, after which she’ll return to her battalion. When we said goodbye at the bus station in the city of Roxas, I asked Isra-Li if she ever seriously considered her sister’s suggestion of moving to the Philippines and living with her family. “No, ” she said. “I’m Israeli, and I’ve already learned to love them from afar.”

Some 6, 700 lone soldiers serve in the Israel Defense Forces today. Close to half of them come from outside of Israel hailing from more than 60 countries around the world. One of the flagship programs of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supports these soldiers. In 2015, according to FIDF figures, the organization supported 2, 665 lone soldiers, 1, 385 of whom received plane tickets to visit their families courtesy of the organization.

FIDF is an American non-profit organization which raises funds to support IDF soldiers and their families through educational, cultural, economic and social programs. It currently has more than 150, 000 donors and 16 regional offices in the United States and in Panama. In 2015, the FIDF raised $101.4 million for these programs supporting IDF soldiers.

“These teenage girls and boys from all over the world, imbued with belief and a sense of mission, to leave their homes and families overseas and join the ranks of the IDF, choose to do something brave and noble to take part in the continued effort to defend the citizens of Israel and world Jewry, ” says FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. Meir Klif Amir. “I see these lone soldiers as a source of inspiration, of pride and of hope for us all. FIDF aims to be an adoptive family for the lone soldiers in the IDF and to make sure that they will never, ever feel alone.”

Yoav Keren reported from the Phillipines

The quotes in this story were translated from the original Hebrew text published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, and thus may contain slight inaccuracies that do not affect the overall meaning conveyed.

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