by Imadodin Basar Dimao
[Hidden Treasure: Bilingual (Arabic) Customer Service Representative CSR opportunity for Bangsamoro Youth and especially for my fellow Asa’tidz, Arabic teachers in the BPO industry]
An Arab poet once said, “Whoever learns people’s dialect is safe of their harm.”
It’s known to us yet undervalued that Bangsamoro children are almost naturally born bilingual (someone is considered bilingual if he knows at least two international languages such as English and Arabic), precisely because our Mada’ris (Mada’ris is a plural form of Madrasa, meaning Arabic school) are everywhere throughout BARMM region. Besides, they are environmentally taught since childhood of at least two local dialects like Mranaw and Tagalog; and so the rest of Bangsamoro tribes.
Growing up, I was wondering where my fate would be heading if I couldn’t make it to college due to financial constraints, which I believe that many of us, especially those who hailed andreached high school level in their own places, would have the same anxieties. It was roughly in the last remaining years of the twentieth century to the early years of the twenty-first century that kept me scrutinizing what the future held for me. It was also the time that one of the trends among us in the Meranaw community was working abroad as OFWs. The term abroad itself was later on locally branded to a few then who worked overseas – neighbors and relatives frequently said, your cousin is abroad (Abroad aki si tungd ka) and the likes. They were looked up to and admired by the whole village just like how some of todays’ youth have a great deal of affection for their celebrity favorites and how some of their parents would eventually encourage their children to be like them in the future. From experience, one thing they shared was that Arabic is always an advantage for someone who knows it. So, it became clear to me that I should learn, besides English, Arabic to have a better chance working abroad, too, someday.
After high school, I was one of the few lucky ones when I was accepted in Zaid bin Thabit Qur’anic Institute in Marawi wherein speaking and writing Arabic are being taught in addition to memorizing the holy Quran and Islamic Studies; it was a stay-in class for at least two years. All of those who went to this prestigious school would agree in common that being there is a glimpse of how studying in Arab countries looks like, provided that it’s only Arabic language allowed inside, and later on many Arabic institutes were created that followed the same way. In fact, going back to Zaid as we fondly name it is one of the best wishes had life had its own U-turn button.
I was finally able to work in Libya in 2010, which was then seen as one of the developing economies in the world until the last quarter of the same year when the civil war started. As the conflict was getting even worse every single day, our government decided to repatriate all Filipinos there as soon as possible in the middle of February 2011, and so we were in March through Tunis since we’re in Tripoli at that time. Our struggle seeking refuge in Tunis was one of the nightmares anyone would never dare to accept if there was a will in one’s destiny. If you saw the stranded people holding signs that said, “We are hungry; we need food” along the Libyan border, we had witnessed that. By dawn, we reached the border and waited for afternoon to come. We were hundreds of Filipinos together.
There, I deeply appreciated the importance of Arabic language, and how it was a fresh breath of air to us. As we were standing already a couple of hours braving negative-degree Celsius weather while our stomachs were itching of hunger, we asked the Philippine consul based in Tunis a few meters away from us what was holding us up from crossing the border, so we could at least take some rest. He told us that they were still waiting for the Philippine envoy sent from the Philippine Embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who would talk to the head of Immigration officers manning the border. Upon hearing that reason, our Filipino Community Chairman said if that was the only issue, we could then try it ourselves and called me asking if I could handle talking to the head of Immigration.
Seeing many stranded people of different nationalities who had been already desperate and violent as the food and other necessity supplies were not enough, I conquered my fear and nodded. I respectfully came to the Immigration Head and conveyed our greetings of peace (Assalmo Alaikom) to him, he replied better (Wa’alaikum asSalam Warahmatullah…) back to us. I then cordially mentioned our Prophet Mohammed’s saying (peace be upon Him) that “Allah’s help is within the man while helping his brother” in classic Arabic. He smiled and consoled me, asking what he could do for us concluding it, my Arab brother (Akhi al-Arab) – this is one of the conventional ways how Arab people appreciated non-Arabs, speaking classic and standard Arabic used in the Holy Quran and the Noble Hadeeth. I definitely felt solace upon hearing that from him and told him that our Philippine Consul asked if they could allow us to cross the border while the document required was still on its way. And he passionately said, it’s an honor for me to do so – we safely passed.
As many expats jested that once an OFW, always an OFW, I decided again to work abroad in Saudi in 2011, and this time, it was with a great account of memories as the experience gained depth as days passed. I got a chance twice to work in the Oil & Gas Industry in my first years when I was able to work with different nationalities ranging from Americans, Europeans, and of course fellow Asians that had surprisingly shown me the reality of the corporate world beyond my expectation – it was indeed a diversified community for me.
In my remaining years abroad, I took the risk to spend it in the Trading industry, hoping that it would open a door for me to see the dynamics of Trading. However, that was quite different with regard to my former companies that had standards; everyone had its own discipline and every progress was being done with Quality Assurance strictly required by the client, Aramco. Nevertheless, in trading, you had to make sure that the deadlines were met at the end of the day however the situation. And sometimes, too, you would need to argue with other departments internally if you felt their policy could affect the smoothness of the business—meaning there was a WIN-WIN solution one time, and someone had to WIN over other departments, so the struggling company amidst financial difficulty could still have managed to pay the employees plus other timely dues. All of these difficulties were handled strategically and successfully due to my Arabic language that was my prime asset in dealing with Saudi officials for matters ranging from logistical issues, customs clearings, and other Saudi agencies whereby locals were only allowed to do business with.
However, the economy was still crippling and I regularly saw my peers leaving for their respective countries in 2017. That was the time I started to think of voluntary parting ways with my employer, too, before I was asked to go for psychological reasons. It was always better to resign than to be asked to resign —I know how it was full of uncertainties back home, but that was the option left for me, meaning that I had nothing to decide on but to leave. Then I was finally back in Manila before 2017 ended. This time, everything has changed financially, socially and psychologically, because the recession in the Middle East was even worse here in the Philippines. I tried Qatar, UAE, and other Gulf regions but only got nothing. Yet, I remained positive because I’m a believer. At last, I received a call from the recruitment team of my prospective employer then, asking if I would be interested in Bilingual Customer Service Representative CSR, and I said I would be more than glad to try it—because I was not sure and had little idea about BPO that time. The best part of the initial interview was I spent nothing; she just called me and asked about my experiences—that’s it; I thought it ended there, no luck.
The following day, I received another call, informing me that the first call was a screening for the next level, and to my surprise, I was shortlisted for English and Arabic language assessment and other basics: Grammar, Typing Speed Test, and IQ test. In this case, I needed to go personally to their office, so I did. To cut it short, the assessment and interview was categorized in seven levels; each level is prerequisite, and we did reach the final level with few that turned out to be my co-bilingual agents when we started. It took two weeks to wait for an update from them, no call after this period meant SORRY, it’s that simple. But the feeling was rather mixed: I was not afraid however the result simply because it’s not my priority. Yet, afraid somehow since I survived until the final interview, meaning that there was a 70/100 chance.
Since I was not quite sure about the result, I started to forget and ignore it the day after the final interview, so it definitely became normal for me after one week had passed—as if nothing was expected. Then I totally forgot about the whole thing until I received a call asking if I had checked my email address. I said, “ I’m sorry, ma’am, but I didn’t actually.” The email was one day old already, untouched, enclosing the offer along with the requirements for the onboarding process—it was new for me because, while comparing, the process for deployment abroad that I knew was costly and time-consuming; this time, it sounded simple and not that expensive. The email also required my initial acknowledgement via email, and that’s why they followed it up.
The first thing I checked upon opening my inbox was the offer, of course. I was surprised and overwhelmed when I saw it: it was basic coupled with language premium that was three times of the basic. The offer was rarely given even for administrative positions abroad. To further encourage my fellow Asa’tidz, the total package for Arabic bilingual here usually plays 50-80 thousands gross depending on the experience and the Line of Business LOB. And so I passionately consider it as a Hidden Treasure.
In conclusion, I would like to remind you, my dear friends that everything happens for a reason. And one of the lessons we could all learn from this pandemic is to be more strategic and creative in life. Indeed, in learning Arabic coupled with emerging skills, is a decent livelihood for us and for our loved ones, not to mention the immeasurable happiness felt while sailing the deep oceans of the old classical Arabic books. Always remember that though Tawakkul and Tawa’kul (both Arabic) are of the same root-word but have the East and the West distance: The former connotes Trust in the Almighty One after one’s doing its part, whereas the latter merely denotes one’s skepticism in the shadow of trust in the Almighty.