My friend the fearless NGO worker Ellene Sana was afraid in Saudi Arabia. Now that says a lot about the place where women are still not allowed to mingle freely with men, not even with their in-laws. Where they enter houses, restaurants and even public buses through a separate entrance.
Ellene is no ordinary NGO worker either. She once rallied with the East Timorese for their independence, in Indonesia no less. She once danced to Burmese policemen out of boredom when she was being held in Burma’s military detention center. Ellene survived countless nights listening to the most boring congressman drone on before the absentee voting bill was passed. She survived a weeklong stay in Greece with only $10 in her pocket!
But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was different.
When she signed on with Rep. Walden Bello, head of the Committee on Overseas Worker Affairs (COWA), as consultant for a visit to Saudi Arabia, she had no idea she would see first hand the hardships overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) face in that alien land.
Ellene now understands why Filipina domestic helpers get jailed for just looking at colleagues of the opposite sex while throwing the garbage or walking the dog. She now understands how hard it is for them to cry out for help when they are kept locked up behind high walls and iron gates, with almost no access to the outside world much less to the Philippine embassy or consulate. She especially deplored the fact that if the girl or woman in question is able to get past the high walls and iron gates, she has to deal with taxi drivers who usually turn out to be rapists themselves, or kidnap the woman to keep as a sex slave whose services he sells to others.
Before the start of the COWA’s trip last week, Ellene was far from afraid. After all, many of the community leaders in Saudi Arabia were her friends. Some had even offered to show her around the kingdom and put her up. But then, travel is prohibitive there for women, and not just cost wise. She almost did not get a visa to enter the Kingdom simply because she was not travelling with a spouse or a family member.
As a result, Ellene left several days after the actual delegation. It was a good thing she was fetched by a consular official at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Riyadh not only because of the general discrimination towards women but also because she arrived in the early morning hours.
However, because Ellene was separated from the delegation, she was not present when the Kingdom’s OFWs aired their grievances to the delegation in a meeting at the embassy premises – minus the women of course. A report in a local newspaper said that although the delegation did not make promises, it took note of the grievances relayed by the OFWs.
“We have come to the Kingdom in high spirits. The government is enjoying an 80 percent rating, which means high confidence from the people. There’s a sense that reforms will be achieved and Congress is determined to help in coming up with a new era for Filipinos," Bello said.
Bello said his group would present a report to the Congress on the results of their mission in KSA. “When we get back to the Philippines, we’ll make a frank and unvarnished report," he said. The dialogue revolved around the establishment of workers cooperatives in KSA, bilateral agreements between the Philippines and KSA on labor protection, repatriation of undocumented OFWs, setting up of an OFW hospital, and representation of OFWs in Congress.
Bello’s mission aimed to address the concerns and issues affecting the country’s estimated 1.4 million OFWs. With him were Reps. Cresente Paez (Coop-NATCO Party-List), Emmeline Aglipay (DIWA Party-List), and Maria Apsay (District 1, Compostela Valley Province).
They were all welcomed to the Kingdom by Philippine Charge d’Affaires Ezzedin Tago, key embassy officials, and Filipino community leaders. Tago was temporary head of the embassy because no Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia has yet been named by President Benigno “Pnoy” Aquino III. Those present at the meeting were Third Secretary and Vice Consul Roussel Reyes, Administrative Officer Arimao Cotawato, Labor Attaché Adam Musa and Welfare Officer Cesar Chavez of the POLO-Central Region, Cultural Attaché Rose Malicse and Attaché Sheila Solas.
The delegation left for Jeddah on Tuesday and Alkhobar on Wednesday, after which they returned to the Philippines. Despite being afraid of the repressive environment, Ellene stayed behind and continued to meet with the OFWs there.
Thanks to Ellene for the photo :)