OFWs, many of them women, are fleeing strife-ridden Mindanao to look for jobs in war-torn Middle East. For salaries that hardly uplift their lives at home, is government exporting OFWs abroad only to be in harm’s way again?
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
The Salam compound in Barangay Culiat, Quezon City looks like a typical Muslim village in Quiapo or Taguig, Metro Manila. There’s the landmark mosque. The market sells halal, the dietary standard of Muslims, as well as traditional dresses for women.
Salam (or Salaam, “peace” in Arabic) is more than these, however. For many Muslims hoping to work abroad, Salam is a halfway point between Mindanao, southern Philippines, and the Gulf Region.
Crowded inside the 4.8-hectare compound are the Maguindanaons, Tausugs, Maranaos, Yakans, and Iranon tribes – numbering nearly 20,000 – many of whom have fled from the battlefields of Mindanao.
Houses inside Salam usually have three floors to accommodate prospective overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Employment applicants receive accommodation, which includes food, water and electricity as they wait for their paper to be processed. All these they pay back as soon as they land a job abroad.
Sorayda Ali had once tried to escape the poverty and the armed conflict that today continues to cripple the lives of Muslims and Christians in Mindanao. War drove Sorayda, now 48, to work as a seamstress in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s.
But despite the secure income she was getting, Saudi Arabia reminded Sorayda of the war in her homeland – the first Gulf War broke out and bombings were taking place even if the war front was concentrated in Kuwait. Kuwait itself became her second country of work before deciding to return to the Philippines in 1998.
Meanwhile, Aisa Ali, cousin of Sorayda’s husband, also worked as a domestic in Kuwait and, like Sorayda, returned home.
Back in Salam, both Sorayda and Aisa tried their luck as recruitment agents for fellow Muslims aspiring for a foreign job since the late 1990s. They have helped recruit Muslim women for jobs in the Middle East particularly in war-torn countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. A source, who also works as agent, said that although OFWs are not deployed directly to Iraq, many of them cross over to this war-torn country for higher-paying mercenary jobs.
Aisa’s three-story house inside Salam is good for 70 people at any time. She estimates that a sack of rice is consumed every two days. In all, the agent spends for one recruitment applicant P20,000 in two to three months of stay. She adds however that she processes papers longer – from three weeks to a month – as she deals with 15 employment agencies.