Return to America

Filipino woman who teaches in Baltimore brings her family

Sun Follow-up

August 12, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

As her plane touched down outside Baltimore this week, Aileen Mercado felt overcome with gratitude.

A year ago, she arrived in this airport on her own, having left her husband and three young children in the Philippines to teach in one of the city's toughest schools. This time, her family was at her side.

They entered the United States on Thursday, the day of a high-risk terror alert. Before takeoff on their connecting flight from Atlanta, Mercado would recall, a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern was asked to leave the plane and he quietly complied. Blissfully unaware, her daughter Adrienne, 4, bounced into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The child was looking for the snow her mother had seen for the first time during the winter.

On Aug. 28, Mercado will begin her second year teaching in Baltimore. So will another 104 Filipino teachers who were among those recruited last year when the city schools first turned abroad to fill classroom vacancies. A new batch of 120 Filipino teachers, Mercado's sister among them, has been in training since early last month.

Mercado, 35, is one of the lucky ones. While many of the teachers went home to the Philippines for the summer, some can't afford to have their families join them in the United States. Others are single. And still others tried to get visas for their families, only to have their applications denied.

But for Mercado, the subject of a yearlong series in The Sun, an agonizing period of separation is over.

"It seems like a dream," she said as she and her family ate their first American meal, fried chicken at Popeye's on U.S. 40. In the turquoise booths next to them were three of her closest Filipino teacher friends, who came on the same flight with their husbands and children. They have all rented townhouses in the same complex in Perry Hall to be near good public schools for their kids.

Dubbing themselves the "Desperate Housewives," the four women were among 72 Filipino teachers who spent their first year in Baltimore living in the same downtown apartment building. Most teachers from the second batch are now living in that building or another one in North Baltimore, colonies of support for those who are alone and far from home.

When Mercado left for the Philippines seven weeks ago, she didn't know whether her family would be returning with her. But she couldn't bear to think of coming back without them.

Last year, Mercado spent Adrienne's third birthday in her apartment weeping, listening to the celebration over the phone. This year, she was with her family Aug. 7, as her daughter turned 4. They spent the day bidding farewell to friends and preparing for a long journey. A few days later, they boarded the plane together.

Now Mercado is realizing the dream she had when she first applied to teach in Baltimore: to expose her children - Adrienne; Andrea, 5; and Andrei, 11 - to life in the United States. She committed to teach special education in the city schools for three years, with the hope of having her family with her for the second two years.

She will work this year at Canton Middle School. Highlandtown Middle, her first assignment, has been closed.

On Thursday, Andrei had a video camera to capture his first moments in his new home. He turned it on as the school bus shuttling the 15 people in their group from the airport headed up Interstate 195, the little girls giggling and waving their hands out the windows. (The driver of the bus befriended the Filipino teachers after reading about them in the newspaper.)

"Hello," Andrei said into the camera. "This is Baltimore."

Driving through Catonsville, Andrea was impressed by the "pretty houses." Andrei was excited to pass a Wal-Mart, which he had heard about on the television show South Park.

The bus's first stop was at Popeye's, where the kids swatted an "American fly." Andrei was surprised at the size of a regular Coca-Cola, the smallest available.

"This is a big size in the Philippines," he said.

After lunch, the four families continued to their new homes. The Mercado kids promptly jumped, fully clothed, into the bathtub, and Adrienne turned the water on and off. They unloaded boxes and suitcases filled with Filipino seasonings, dried mangoes, a tub of powdered milk, and corn and garlic snacks called Boy Bawang.

In the coming days, Mercado needs to apply for an American driver's license, buy a car and register her kids in school. Her husband, Isagani, who worked in a prison in the Philippines, must start a job search, though he has to wait three months before he is permitted to begin work.

As the family unpacked Thursday afternoon, Mercado's friends from a Filipino church went to a storage facility to collect the rest of her belongings. The kids, exhausted, sprawled out on the carpet and began work on a puzzle.

"We made it," Mercado said as she watched them. "It's a new beginning."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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