By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — A teary-eyed Camille, not her real name, 32, stepped out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at last on December 9. She immediately gave her family a tight hug, especially her three children whom she did not see for more than a year. Then, she reached out for her father and greeted him ‘Happy birthday, Tay.” It was her father’s 64th birthday, and he was getting his wish granted as he watched Camille’s homecoming.
“Yes, there were times when I thought I would never make it home,” Camille told Bulatlat.com, “But I know that through God’s will, I would. It might take longer than I hoped but at least I am alive.”
Camille left for Dammam, Saudi Arabia on May 14, 2009 to work as cleaner in a hospital there. But barely three months after arriving, her Bangladeshi co-worker, a certain Mr. Mammon, drugged her unconscious, raped her and got her pregnant as a result. The Bangladeshi co-worker is a driver tasked to do errands for the hospital staff, including buying their snacks for them while they work.
Sometime in September 2009, the Bangladeshi driver did not return with Camille’s “usual softdrinks,” so she asked instead if she could have a cup of tea. “I did not suspect that he put a sleeping tablet in it because another female co-worker handed me the tea,” Camille said.
When she woke up later and realized what happened, Camille said she was very afraid, especially of what her three children and husband back home might think. She was both afraid and ashamed of what had happened. She could not bring herself to tell her other co-workers about it. Upon discovering that she was pregnant, though, Camille’s employer refused to believe that she was raped. They accused Camille of having an extramarital affair and sent her to jail.
All throughout her imprisonment, Camille said, no embassy official visited her nor asked her side of the story. “I went to court hearings five times but they (Philippine embassy officials) did not attend,” Camille said. “I was clueless about what was going on because the court did not give me an interpreter.” Being the only Filipino in their prison cell, Camille devoted most of her time to learning how to speak Arabic, not only to communicate with others but to have an idea of what was transpiring in her trial. But she was denied the opportunity to speak – she was asked only if she has a husband in the Philippines.
The court finally sentenced her with 11 months of imprisonment and 150 lashes for a crime she did not commit. She also did not have a single riyal for her daily needs. The Dammam local government, fortunately, allocates five riyals a day for every jailed person. The amount, according to Camille, could barely pay for her meals. For other necessities such as soap and shampoo, Camille had to sell her belongings to the police just to get by.
Because of her difficult, stressful living conditions in prison, Camille had a miscarriage last December 20, 2009.
Back home, the her family had been striving to help Camille by seeking support from various government agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
“When we learned about what happened to (Camille), we did not know where to go and who to talk to who could possibly help her,” Camille’s father said during the welcome party launched for her by Migrante International.
The DFA and Camille’s family had a dialogue on December 26, 2009. But, Migrante chairperson Garry Martinez said, in a previous interview with Bulatlat.com, that their organization appeared more familiar with Camille’s case than the DFA, which has at its command the government machinery that could look into her case.
Martinez said they were shocked that DFA officials had the gall to tell the family that the Bangladeshi driver was Camille’s boyfriend. Martinez complained, “They know the rumors but not the facts.”
The family requested the DFA to give Camille some legal assistance. But it categorically replied that “they could not help (Camille) because they only provide legal assistance to OFWs in death row.”
Camille was supposed to have been sent back to the Philippines last July, after serving her sentence in jail. On August 26, 2010, Camille’s mother, received a text message from Milet Flores, a lawyer and also a case officer of the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) informing them that Camille was scheduled to arrive the following day.
Camille’s mother raised money so they could pick up her daughter at the airport, but her daughter did not arrive. “The family kept on calling Atty. Flores but she completely ignored their calls,” Migrante said in a statement.
“They fooled us,” Camille’s 17-year-old son, disgustedly told Bulatlat.com.
Worried about Camille, Migrante did some research and, from a labor attache report, found out that “he was not able to locate (Camille), she was not in Dammam’s deportation center and no one was able to tell her whereabouts.” The news made her family even more worried.
Camille said the deportation center did not admit her on October 23. But instead of returning her to Hafer Al Baten Jail, Camille was shocked to have been moved to Dammam Central Jail, which is notorious for maltreatment of inmates. The DFA did not explain why Camille was jailed once more when she has already served her sentence. Worse, these officials later denied in a television interview that such thing happened.
Home At Last
When Camille was informed that finally, she was to be sent home, she could not express what she felt at the time. “Thank you, Lord. At last I would be able to see my children again,” she remembered praying.
If there was anything that caused her to hesitate, it was the fear of facing people who do not know what she really went through.
“But then, why should I be ashamed when I did not do anything wrong against anyone?” she said.
Camille arrived in Manila in the evening of December 9. Her 17-year-old son said he could not help but be very happy yet nervous at the same time. While waiting at the airport, he said, “I have always prayed for this day. We will have a merry Christmas this year.”
Camille’s father, who was celebrating his 64th birthday that day, could not have wished for something else. “If it were not for Migrante, our family would not know what to do,” he said. He described the DFA, in Filipino, as “inactive,” “weak” and “not doing anything.”
Her mother said she could finally sleep well starting that night. “Before,” she said, “I would wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about (Camille).”
Stranded, Neglected OFWs
Camille, on the other hand, said that while she is enjoying the humble celebration of her return to Manila, she could not help but think of her fellow Filipinos languishing in jail. In Dammam Central Jail alone, Camille met some 26 Filipino women who are “victims of the government’s continuing neglect.”
She said most of them were domestic helpers who were either physically or sexually abused or denied their salary, prompting them to run away from their employers. A certain Anna Marie Crisostomo has been sentenced to serve three years in prison but she is already into her fifth year, as of press time.
Unfortunately, these cases are not isolated. There are more OFWs whose sufferings are being compounded by inept services of the Philippine government to Filipino migrant workers. Migrante International estimates that there are about 10,000 stranded OFWs in the Middle East alone.
OFWs have also lost their legal cases, despite strong evidences backing their stories, chiefly because of government failure to provide immediate legal assistance at the very start of the trials. Migrante cited the case of Cecilia Alcaraz, an OFW in Taiwan, who got a death sentence that was recently commuted to life imprisonment.
Migrante urged the government to hold officials accountable for neglecting their responsibility in providing services to OFWs. “We call on the Aquino administration to immediately investigate (Camille)’s case, and to punish government officials who have failed to do their jobs.”
The OFW group also urged Flores, Labor Attache David Dicang, Undersecretary Esteban Conejos and DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo to issue a public apology to Camille and her family.
Martinez said that this Christmas, “We wish that abusive and negligent government officials would resign from their posts and be persecuted for their abandonment of our OFWs.” (Bulatlat.com)