Most mornings, Dante Almarez said he walks with his 5 -year-old niece, Maria, from their makeshift apartment built from shipping containers to wait for the school bus.
But one day last week, Almarez was long gone when the bus pulled up. He was in a line at the Foreign Ministry, helping one of his sisters obtain documents so that she could work in Israel.
Soon, Almarez, jobless and single at 23, will be the guardian of Maria, his niece, whose mother works as a gas-station cashier in Los Angeles, and his nephew, Hanz Christian, 4, whose mother is planning to leave.
The collective sacrifices of people such as Almarez and his family are typical throughout the Philippines, a country with 7 million people working abroad to improve their financial conditions. Last year, Filipinos working overseas sent home about $7.6 billion, 10 percent of the county's gross domestic product.
When one of them, Angelo de la Cruz, a truck driver kidnapped last month in Iraq, was imperiled, Filipinos reacted strongly and personally.
"It was so frightening because we didn't know something like this could happen," said Almarez, who said he has six close relatives employed abroad. "It made me think this could also happen to my family."
That reaction helps to explain the decision by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to meet the demands of the kidnappers and withdraw 51 Philippine troops who had been serving in Iraq.
Analysts said she had no other political option, describing de la Cruz as an Everyman whose plight strikes at the heart of Filipino life.
"He symbolizes all the overseas workers and our inability to develop the economy well enough to provide for work and sustenance and well-being," said Jose V. Abueva, a political scientist and president of Kalayaan College. "There's a sense of guilt in our country that we cannot provide the work they need."
But the Bush administration was not happy about Arroyo's decision. The U.S. ambassador returned to Washington after the release of de la Cruz to reexamine the relationship with its longtime ally and former colony, U.S. officials said. There also was a strong rebuke from the Australian government, which has about 900 troops serving in the U.S.-led force in Iraq, warning that caving in to terrorist demands will encourage more attacks.
Almarez, solidly built with a broad face and thick black hair, sat on a plastic bench outside the Foreign Ministry. He recounted the trying story of his family as he waited with scores of other Filipinos seeking exit documents. He was there because his sister couldn't go; she was working.
His father's fruit and poultry farm had done poorly. Almarez and his older brother Dario, 27, both had trained to work as customs brokers but failed to find employment. Their father went into debt partly because he paid to send Almarez's two sisters to nursing school, but neither found a job.
The oldest sister, Lerma, 32, moved to Los Angeles to join her Filipino husband, who works as a dental assistant. They left Maria behind so that she would be raised in her native culture.
"Her mother calls all the time from the United States and cries," Almarez said.
The second sister, Lucila, 30, is a secretary at a Manila entertainment agency that dispatches Filipino singers and dancers to Japan. But the pay is poor. She wants to work in Israel, joining three cousins already working there. Lucila's husband is a seaman and is gone sometimes for a year at a time. "His job is cleaning rust off the ship and sometimes he calls home and says, ' My life is very hard here, so please be careful with the money,' " Almarez recounted.
Lucila and her son live with Almarez in a Manila apartment building, which he described as a multi-story structure fashioned from stacked steel shipping containers, with stairways at either end. Almarez said he saw the plight of de la Cruz -- whose name means Angel of the Cross -- as typical of the suffering of Filipinos.
"He is the average Filipino," Almarez said. "He is the poor man who wants to improve his life. That's what the average Filipino is."
But the Philippines is intimately involved with the United States. About 4 million Filipinos live in the United States either as citizens or temporary workers.
Unlike other Southeast Asians, Filipinos drive on the right-hand side of the road, use the square plugs of American electrical outlets and prefer basketball over soccer. Radios blare with American-format music stations, with such names as WROCK, and relentless American-style advertising jingles. The local language is laced with American slang.
But when de la Cruz was threatened with beheading, Arroyo broke with the United States.
"It was her political survival at stake," said Marites Vitug, editor of Newsbreak magazine. "Saving Angelo was saving Gloria."
When the crisis broke, Arroyo had just been reelected two months earlier after a bitter campaign and by a far-thinner margin than political experts had predicted. Her main challenger, Fernando Poe Jr., has still refused to concede, instead filing an electoral-fraud case and threatening to summon his supporters into the streets. Yet despite the shaky mandate, Arroyo has called for a program of new tax increases and economic austerity that is certain to be unpopular with many.
"If the man was executed, it would be a formula for an outburst on the streets," said Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines. "She had to manage this to buy domestic peace so she could explain her tough economic agenda."
A poll by HB&A Research International showed that 72 percent of respondents in metropolitan Manila agreed with Arroyo's decision to withdraw the troops.
At the Almarez family farm, 100 miles south of Manila, reached via cratered roads that snake over lush mountains before descending to the coast, Almarez's father described the hardship of being separated from relatives overseas.
"Sometimes at night you remember the precious times you used to spend together," said Evaristo Almarez, 57, a gray-haired peasant with silver stubble against dark, weathered skin and large, rough hands with dirt beneath his nails. Behind him, on the unfinished cement walls of his home, hung four framed photographs of his two daughters, each pictured in a graduation robe and nursing uniform.
"This is my reality. An ordinary person finds it so hard to improve his life. That's why so many people leave," Evaristo said. "It's like Angelo de la Cruz. He went abroad a few times so he could save enough money."
Evaristo said he was relieved when de la Cruz came home. "Arroyo did what was necessary so he could go free," he said.
And he said he has one other consideration. When his daughter Lerma completes the official paperwork in the United States, he plans to join her in Los Angeles.