At the Second European Regional Conference of the European Network of Filipino Diaspora (ENFID) held in Malta from July 31 to August 2, 2015, a bald Maltese gentleman was often seen working feverishly behind the scenes.
One minute, he’s giving instructions to the volunteer staff. The next, he could be found checking on the meals for the delegates after adjusting the lighting of the conference hall to be suitable for the ongoing presentation. Even after the fellowship dinner that he organized in the bustling entertainment district of St. Julian, he was going from table to table with a stack of papers, confirming airport transfers for the departing delegates.
The first question that most people had in mind when they saw Maltese businessman Kevin Attard attending to various logistical details of the conference was what could his connection to the Filipino community be for him to be so heavily involved. Many assumed that he was married to a Filipina. Seeing his warm rapport and interaction with the Malta-based Filipino volunteers that provided the legwork for the event, one would think that he must be a major employer of Filipino workers in this tiny Mediterranean nation.
It would surprise many that Attard was not tied to the Filipino community by marriage or official business enterprise.
Attard’s first meaningful contact with the Filipino community started when his mother’s health started to decline from Multiple Sclerosis. His father made a promise to keep her in her home environment as much as possible. This necessitated 24-hour care. That’s when they employed a Filipino caregiver. When his mother’s condition got worse, they got a second Filipino caregiver to assist. They have since been working with the Attard family for 11 and 8 years, respectively. Attard considers them his sisters, saying that they know his parents needs very well and are fantastic to work with.
From there, his connection with the Filipino community in Malta grew. When the tiny island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea joined the European Union in 2004 and become a Schengen state, many Filipinos living in Malta found themselves with difficulties in immigration. Some of the caregivers’ friends were among these people. They asked their boss Kevin for help, knowing that he was well connected. What started as assisting a few friends grew bigger and bigger, until “Mr. Kevin” became a go-to guy for many Filipinos in Malta on a completely voluntary basis. Many of his Maltese friends also knew to come to him to refer them to good Filipino workers. He became an unofficial bridge between the two cultures.
When asked why he does it, he said that he was raised by his parents to help people as part of their Catholic faith. Married for 20 years with three children, Attard values his family deeply and clearly empathizes with the difficulty faced by the OFWs who are far they are from their country and their families.
A successful Maltese businessman
42-year old Attard is the CEO and Managing Director of Attard Holdings with companies providing services related to the shipping industry. Malta is in the middle of the oceanic highway between North Africa and Europe, and is a critical point in the trading route.
The first company he built on his own was for customs brokerage and clearance, at the age of 19. He also has another company that worked on assisting importers/exporters including those that exported tuna to Japan. His third company provided ferry transport services between Malta and Italy.
Although he doesn’t directly employ Filipinos for his businesses, he has met many of them in his career, from captains to deckhands of the ships that he has business transactions with.
His affiliation with the Filipino community and his stellar reputation in the Maltese shipping industry seemed destined to prepare him for one of his biggest endeavors.
In 2013, a Taiwanese vessel was stranded in the Mediterranean sea, four hours away from the Maltese coast. The company, a car carrier, had lost its contract and was in deep financial troubles. There was a big mortgage on the vessel. Port charges would had to be paid if it came into Malta. As such, it would be immediately seized if it entered the harbour. The agent that was supposed to make the arrangements had abandoned the vessel. The Taiwanese company left the ship and all aboard to languish in the open waters for three months.
On board the ship were 48 Filipino crew members. They were left to fend for themselves by the Taiwanese shipping company and the recruitment agency that hired them for the job. They could not leave the ship because if they did, they would have waived their rights to their hard-earned wages. It was also illegal by maritime law to abandon a ship. One of the crew members suffered a heart attack while on board. There were some who entertained the thoughts of suicide. They were finally able to send word about their plight to the Philippine embassy in Rome.
Attard came to hear about this situation when Mr. Virgilio Reyes , then Ambassador of the Philippines to Italy, sought his assistance for securing the stranded seamen. Every week for two months, Attard visited the ship to provide updates as he took on the responsibility of representing them in court. Finally, the court ruled in the Filipino seamen’s favor and they were repatriated back home with full wages, bonus and danger pay.
When praised for his efforts, Attard is quick to clarify that he was compensated for his company’s services in the situation. However, one could sense that Attard took on this task for reasons other than money. He said he kept thinking of the 48 Filipino lives on the ship and the families waiting on them. He was focused on the impact that being able to secure the repatriation of the 48 crew members would have on their loved ones.
Because of his service to the Filipino people in Malta and as his efforts with the Filipino crewmen, then Ambassador Reyes put forth Attard’s nomination for Consul General for the community in Malta. Attard shared that he had provided the necessary requirements to process the nomination and was told that it was approved.
Soon after, he received a call from another consul who, he later gathered, was not in good terms with the ambassador. He was informed that his nomination was rejected by the Maltese government. No reason was given, nor did Attard see any official documentation from either the Philippine or Maltese government regarding this rejection. He was surprised to hear this, particularly since he has a good relationship with the leaders of his country. It was good enough that with one phone call to the office of the President of Malta, he was able to secure Marie Louise Preca’s appearance at a Filipino conference later on. However, Attard did not pursue the issue. He instead returned to working and helping Filipinos in his personal capacity.
In 2015, Ms. Marie Luarca-Reyes, then Executive Director of ENFID called on Attard’s assistance in organizing the group’s second regional conference in Malta. At first he said no. When asked if he was burned by the previous experience, he replied that it wasn’t the issue. He was concerned about how effective he would be in accomplishing this project. Not having an official title linking him posed as a challenge. It was only with his personal network of connections in business and government that he had been able to pull things together.
With the same enthusiasm he’s always had for the Filipinos, Attard agreed and called on friends and contacts to put together a very successful and organized event. Between securing a beautiful resort hotel for a venue, contracting a taxi service for airport transfers for the delegates, connecting the organizers to the Malta Tourism Authority, making sure that all the volunteers and their children at the event were fed, to having the President of Malta attend the event for a brief talk, Attard took on the task and accomplished it with an equal measure of efficiency and compassion.
During the ENFID Conference, it came to light that Attard was involved in the efforts to repatriate Filipinos from the besieged country of Libya. Atty. Rodel Rodis in his article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer revealed that Amb. Reyes had again sought Attard’s assistance in finding a way to evacuate Filipinos out of Libya.
In his article, Atty. Rodis wrote that Attard had contacted a Maltese ferry company that had previously provided services for the U.S. and Australian governments, the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and various corporations for their own evacuation missions in 2011. Attard showed proof for a bid for the services that cost less than half of the $1.8 million that Philippine government eventually paid a different company and contact, under the direction of a Philippine diplomat other than Amb. Reyes.
Another nomination bid
Recently, another nomination has been submitted for Attard to be appointed as Consult General of Malta. He said that the biggest advantage that this appointment would give him is having an official title will open more doors and provide more expedient results in resolving the matters concerning the Filipinos in Malta.
The main concerns that he want to address as Consult General are the integration of the Filipino and Maltese cultures, and as well as incidences of exploitation on Filipino workers. He firmly believes that the Filipinos have their own mind, their own identity and capabilities, and should have the opportunity to do well in life.
To illustrate his point, he shared one more story that touched his heart. Two years ago, his mother became ill and was taken to the Intensive Care Unit. Attard sat there with his mother’s Filipino caregiver around New Year’s Day, fearing the worse. The monitor gave out a long beep, which made them think that his mother might be passing. In the room with them was a Filipino cleaner.
“Don’t worry – the machine is just cycling around,” the cleaner assured them calmly. Attard was surprised by this and asked if she had been working at the hospital for a long time to know this. The cleaner said she knew because she was a nurse back in the Philippines.
This, Attard said, was just one of the many stories that he’s witnessed and heard that strengthened his conviction in the huge potential of mutually beneficial relationships of Malta and the Filipino community. One of the immediate projects he wants to initiate once appointed as Consul General is to organize a special course with the University of Malta for Filipinos, especially nurses, to complete the remaining classes and units needed in order to quality for Maltese professional standards. He firmly believes that education is the key to success, whether for the Maltese or the Filipino.