In Syria, Fleeing Filipinos Abused By Embassy

Foreign servants in a number of Arab countries often accuse their employers of horrific abuse and mistreatment. As Syria descended into civil war, Phillipine newspapers denounced the country’s embassy there for helping to jail numerous victims.

MANILA – Analiza Muana, 32, was a domestic helper over-burdened with work yet underpaid by her employer in Syria.

Her duties included cleaning her employer’s house, taking care of their children, doing the laundry and other household chores. She also had to clean the house of her employer’s relatives. Her employer did not allow her three meals a day and they paid her $175 instead of $400 as stated in her contract.

On June 5, 2011, she left her employer and sought refuge from the Philippine embassy. But instead of refuge, the Philippine embassy brought her to jail because her employer had reported her to the authorities. Analiza was imprisoned at the cramped jail for a week. Upon release she went back to the Philippine embassy but her nightmare still did not end there.

According to reports, Muana’s experience is not isolated. Other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Syria have also gotten the same treatment from the Philippine embassy. After escaping abusive employers, it is like they end up going to another hell.

Inhumane situation

Muana met several other OFWs at a ‘temporary house’ called the Filipino Workers Resource Centers (FWRCs) of the Philippine embassy.

There were no decent meals there. “They measure everything. We eat one cup of rice, chicken bones or a slice of eggplant for viand, while they (the embassy official) eat good food,” Muana said.

Another domestic helper, Arlene Castillo, 37, had also stayed at the temporary shelter. She corroborated Muana’s testimony. “They barred us from buying groceries when the food they were giving us was not enough. We were also not allowed to go outside the embassy. Mornings we eat only half a piece of Arabic bread and drink tea,” Castillo told Bulatlat.com.

Ruth Martinez, 37, another domestic helper, fared worse. She got sick while staying at the embassy. She sought refuge at the temporary shelter on Sept. 23 last year after escaping from her abusive employer.

Two days later, she and six others were rushed to the hospital due to food poisoning. “We were all vomiting; we had diarrhea. I was very dizzy and my blood pressure also shot up,” Martinez told Bulatlat.com in an interview. All they ate was food served at the embassy.

At the hospital, Martinez and six other OFWs were guarded by the Syrian police. “They said we have no papers so they were guarding us. By Sept. 26, we were brought to the immigration and there we were detained,” she recalled.

Martinez and another OFW got released on the same day. But four other OFWs remained in jail at the immigration because they had no exit visa yet.

At the time they were at the embassy, it was winter. Yet, Castillo said they had to take cold baths, no heater. And two people had to share a mattress.

OFWs were also barred from using their cellphones.

Martinez hid her cellphone so she could communicate with her children in the Philippines. She shared it also with other OFWs who wanted to communicate with their relatives.

“I hid my cellphone so that we were also updated about what was happening in Syria and so we could update our relatives on our situation here,” she said. She also managed to disseminate information about their plight and about the situation of OFWs in Syria through Facebook.

When caught sing their cellphones, these were confiscated. Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez asked the government why the OFWs’ cellphones are being confiscated at the temporary shelter.

“The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) said it is a POLO-OWWA policy,” Martinez quoted them as saying. He added that Migrante can’t see the rationale for confiscating mobile phones and isolating the OFWs from their families and the rest of the world. “How else would we know their real situation in Syria?” he asked.

The Migrante leader added that the confiscation of mobile phones in FWRCs is a direct violation of the fourth Geneva Convention. “Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”, it states that individuals “who do not belong to the armed forces or take no part in the hostilities” should be protected and “enabled to exchange family news of a personal kind” and/or “helped to secure news of family members dispersed by the conflict.”

Slow repatriation

The three women OFWs decried the slow repatriation of OFWs from war-torn Syria.

Muana had been at the embassy in June 2010 but she was repatriated almost two years later, on Jan. 17 this year.

“I don’t know why and what took them so long to allow me to go back home,” she said.

Due to depression and frustration, Muana admitted she almost lost her mind. “I became hysterical. I was screaming at the embassy. I wanted so badly to go home,” she said.

Martinez and Castillo waited two months before they were sent home. Martinez arrived back last December while Castillo arrived this January.

Migrante International said there are 17,000 OFWs still in Syria. The group said the government has repatriated only six percent of this 17,000. They are asking the DFA to “increase its efforts tenfold” to be able to repatriate the abused domestic helpers in the Middle East.

Reports said the death toll in Syria has reached 5,500. Some of the casualties were members of the international media.

Embassy sends OFWs to jail

Like Muana, Ramos and two of her companions had been brought by the Philippine embassy to jail even though they had stayed at the embassy for quite some time.

Muana appealed to the government to help her friend, Sahla Alab, 37, who has been languishing in jail for four months now. Alab wrote that she has been staying in the temporary shelter in the embassy since Sept. 15, 2010 since she escaped her employer.

“Every day I hoped the embassy will take care of my case and that soon I will be able to come home to the Philippines,” Alab wrote in a letter she secretly handed over to Muana when the latter visited her before going back home to the Philippines.

Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona is receiving similar reports. A certain Rowena Ramos had texted him last Feb. 21 asking him to follow up her case, along with two other companions in Syria.

“Gud pm! Sir, Rowena ramos po i2 fr.syria. sir pki-follow up nmn po case q s embsy.ngtgl po q don tas forward d2 s kulungn.2lungn u kmi sir.rowena,nelvic & romela (Good afternoon! Sir, this is Rowena Ramos from Syria. Sir, please help us follow up on our case with the Philippine embassy. I stayed there for months but I was sent to jail. Please help us Sir -Rowena, Nelvic, and Romela),” Ramos quoted the text message sent to Monterona.

A leader of Migrante International, Monterona is based in Saudi Arabia. He immediately called back Ramos to get more information but for some reason he could not get his call through. He said he called her mobile number several times but an auto-answering voice on the other line says “phone is currently switched off or out of coverage area.” He has been calling Ramos since last month.

“I call Ramos’s mobile number every day but to no avail. I could not understand why the distressed and trapped OFWs who were already under the custody of the Philippine embassy for a month or more were forwarded or were endorsed by the embassy to jail” Monterona said.

“Even if there was a pending case of absconding filed by their respective employers, the Philippine embassy should have been more prudent in sending the distressed OFWs, who are already under their custody, to jail, given the present peace and order situation in Syria,” Monterona said.

Monterona asked the DFA to investigate. “In which jail are the three OFWs imprisoned? What is their condition?” Monterona asked.

Shattered dreams

Castillo, Martinez and Muana are just some of the Filipinos who opted to leave their families to work abroad.

Castillo, mother of an 11-year-old son, was the breadwinner in her family. Her husband is jobless. She came home this January to find that her husband has been living with another woman.

Martinez, meanwhile, is a widow. She endured three years of suffering under her employer for her three children. Since her husband died three years ago, she had to feed her children aged 19, 16 and 11.

Muana is single but she wanted to improve her family’s life.

All three said they would never go back to Syria. They called on the Philippine embassy in Syria to help the distressed OFWs instead of making their situation more difficult.

By Anne Marxze D. Umil