Philippines Ambassador to Lebanon Bernardita Catalla. Photo: Handout / Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs

Ambassador Bernardita Catalla, a trailblazing advocate for her Filipino compatriots in Lebanon, died on Thursday of Covid-19 complications in Beirut. She was 62 years old.

Born in the city of Makati, Catalla earned a master’s degree in communications as well as development studies before embarking on a diplomatic career. She worked her way up the ranks of the Philippines’ foreign service in Kuala Lumpur, going on to serve as consul in Jakarta and Hong Kong, before taking up the post of ambassador in Beirut in 2018.

Known by her nickname “Bernie”, those who worked closely with the ambassador in Lebanon recalled her as a woman of the people.

“She was an amazing person on the personal and professional level. She’d never been away from the people. All the events, activities, cases she followed, emergencies – she was there,” said Noha Roukoss, project awareness officer at Caritas Lebanon.

Ambassador Bernardita Catalla (center) at the Philippines independence day celebration in Lebanon in June 2019. Photo courtesy of Noha Roukoss

That dedication ranged from participating in traditional dances at the Philippines independence day celebrations, to personally making calls to Lebanese employers in cases of human trafficking.

“She wasn’t delegating. Everyone could reach her,” said Roukoss, who collaborated with the ambassador for more than two and a half years.

Before her passing, Ambassador Catalla was working to raise awareness on women’s rights, human trafficking, and migrants’ rights in Lebanon, collaborating with NGOs and government agencies alike to improve local labor conditions.

She was also seeking to increase cooperation between the Philippines and Lebanon in spheres beyond providing labor, calling on Lebanon’s new foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, on March 3 to discuss cultural and trade matters.

Catalla’s last crucial action was brokering a free mass repatriation for Filipino nationals, the vast majority vulnerable domestic workers, impacted by Lebanon’s financial collapse and capital controls.

More than 1,000 Filipino nationals signed up for the offer last December, which included air fare and the settlement of any fees incurred by overstaying their visas or breaking contracts.

Until now, “more than 500 women are back home safe, without problems with the employers. So she was a good negotiator with employers, the migrants themselves, and government entities,” said Roukoss.

Lebanon, like most Arab countries, requires domestic workers be tied to their employers, putting women in a precarious situation that can result in confiscated passports and de facto servitude with little recourse.

Lebanon’s former labor minister went so far as to compare the “kafala” sponsorship system to “modern day slavery”.

While Catalla advocated on behalf of all migrant workers, she was extremely effective as a representative for her nationals, putting them on a pay scale far above what many migrant workers can expect to make.

Perhaps her hallmark accomplishment was securing a bilateral agreement between the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs and Lebanon’s Ministry of Labor, guaranteeing all Filipino workers in Lebanon a salary of minimum $400 per month, one day off per week, and regular follow-up from their embassy.

For Catalla, every case was “like family”, said Roukoss. “It was not like formal follow-up. She herself would pick up the phone and follow up on cases. That’s why everyone is sad now.”

Having worked tireless on human trafficking issues across Asia, Catalla’s term in Lebanon was coming to a close this year.

Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr said he last spoke to Catalla on March 9, and promised her the prestigious posting of France next as a reward for her dedication.

“I extended her for a great job in a difficult post. I promised her Paris so she’d hang on,” Locsin tweeted. She laughed and replied, “Now I must learn French.”

Both Beirut and Manila are currently battling to contain Covid-19 outbreaks, with Lebanon at more than 400 cases and the Philippines surging over 2,000.

Catalla’s remains, the foreign minister said, would be received with an honor guard, and she would be nominated for the prestigious Gawad Mabini presidential honor, and the Sikatuna, the highest award in the Philippines’ foreign service.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.