On the fringes | Meeting Mary Jane


(UPDATED: March 7, 2023; 6:42 am) YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — It was almost 11:00 am, a hot Tuesday, Feb. 28, when members of the Asia Pacific Forum for Women Law and Development (APWLD) and its Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) partners under the migration program arrived at Lapas Perempuan Kelass IIB (women’s penitentiary) where Filipina migrant worker Mary Jane Veloso was transferred from the execution island in Indonesia.

Mary Jane was transferred here in 2021. This is the third prison where she has been detained since Indonesia President Joko Widodo granted temporary reprieve just hours before her supposed execution in April 2015.

All of us were looking forward to this day, to meet Mary Jane and to convey to her our message of hope and support.

Illustration by Max Santiago/Bulatlat

Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International, said that after many years, this is the first time that Mary Jane was visited again by a group of people.

Her group was among the FPAR partners of APWLD. Along with Migrante International are organizations from India, Nepal, Taiwan, Mongolia and Indonesia. This writer, on the other hand, came as a fellow of APWLD’s Media Fellowship on Migration and Migrant Women’s Human Rights.

The process of entering the prison was quite swift. The soft spoken male jail official welcomed us and reminded us of the things that are prohibited inside the facility like weapons and cameras. But we were allowed to bring pen and paper, allowing me to take notes for this blog entry.

Leaving our things in a locker, we went through the screening process and then led to an air-conditioned room where we would meet Mary Jane. We were given an hour by the jail officials.

Mary Jane came into the room a few moments later, hugged Joanna and then faced us, smiling and full of excitement.

Illustration by Max Santiago/Bulatlat

It was surreal for me to finally meet Mary Jane in the flesh; to get to know her even for a short time.

Each FPAR partner expressed their solidarity to Mary Jane.

“We are honored to meet you Mary Jane… Your bravery is such an inspiration to everybody. We stand in complete solidarity with you,” said Ananya Kundu, country regional coordinator from Women’s Regional Network in India. She added that the law and justice system in the world is designed in such a way that it targets the marginalized and most vulnerable.

Sherry Wang, a Filipina migrant worker who is working with Serve the People Association in Taiwan shared that she, along with Migrante Philippines, visited Mary Jane’s family in Nueva Ecija after a typhoon that struck their house.

“Your sons missed you a lot. Just be strong,” Sherry said.

Almost everybody was wiping their tears as Mary Jane, who was also emotional, welcomed and thanked her visitors for their presence.

I, on the other hand, have tried my very best not to start bawling.

“I am crying not because I am sad. I am crying because I’m happy that you are here,” she said.

She now speaks fluently in Bahasa and needed an interpreter to relay her message. She said it is difficult for her to speak in Tagalog, but she can still understand the language. She also seems to be healthy and looks like she has not aged since 2015.

“I am well treated here,” she said, adding that she also learned to adapt to the environment.

Her smile looks like she is not suffering from agony but she admitted that sometimes she also loses hope.

It has been 13 years since Mary Jane has been in jail.

Read: Full Text: Mary Jane Veloso narrates how she ended up in death row 
Read: ‘What went wrong?’ | 15 questions Aquino, DFA need to answer on Mary Jane case 
Read: Saving Mary Jane Veloso, making up for 5 years of govt neglect 

Mary Jane believes that one day she will be granted clemency by the Indonesian government. She reiterated that she is not guilty of the accusations against her.

Just like many OFW parent, Mary Jane, a single mother, was forced to go abroad for the future of her two sons. Little did she know that she would become a victim of human trafficking which put her in her present situation.

She admitted that she cannot accept what happened to her. But amid all the uncertainty, Mary Jane tries her very best to stay strong, remain positive and hopeful that one day, she will come back home.

“Sometimes I want to give up because there is no certainty. But visits like this one gives me hope. Your support makes me strong and positive,” Mary Jane said in Bahasa.

She added that Kabar Bumi, an organization of migrant workers and their families in Indonesia also did not leave her side and is always ready to support her in her struggle and call for clemency.

Through the years, Mary Jane said she did not stop learning things inside the prison. She learned how to play the guitar, write poems that she would later on transform into a song.

Illustration by Max Santiago/Bulatlat

“I make songs. I usually play my song entitled Piece of Hope when someone visits me here,” she said.

Of course, we insisted that she also sing for us. While she hesitated for a bit because, as she said, her voice is not in the condition at that the moment. But with a little prodding, Mary Jane asked the jail officers if she could get her guitar which they eventually allowed. It took a few minutes before she came back with her guitar with her name written on it.

Later on, she strummed the guitar and started singing in Indonesia’s local language. Her voice cracks but she was able to finish the song without weeping.

She also joined all activities in the women’s penitentiary. She learned how to make handicrafts such as the batik. She said she is earning some kind of commission from the selling of the batik.

Mary Jane said some of the designs are originally made by her while some are patterned after templates from the internet.

She uses the money not only to buy for her own supply inside prison, she said she also would save some for her family.

Later on, jail officers took out some of Mary Jane’s designed batik, bags and shirts (the visitors bought most of it). They also asked her to sign the items for them (just like a rockstar!).

A visitor asked if she had anything to ask the Indonesian government. Mary Jane said, “I only want to go home. I really pray that one day President Widodo will grant clemency.”

The supposed one hour interaction lasted almost two hours. The jail officials were considerate enough to let us stay for some more minutes.

The Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development together with their FPAR partners after visiting Mary Jane in women’s penitentiary in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Photo by Anne Marxze D. Umil/Bulatlat)

Meanwhile, Migrante International told her of their efforts to call for clemency.

It was a never ending words of encouragement from the visitors. To not lose hope and stay strong as the battle for her life continues not only in the Philippines and Indonesia but the whole world.

“We will not stop until you are free and finally come home,” Joanna said.

When it was time to go, Mary Jane hugged us one by one, about 20 people. Some took some minutes as they whispered to her once again their never ending support. I hugged Mary Jane tight and whispered, “Be strong. The Filipinos are with you.”

Leaving the place was heartbreaking knowing that you will be leaving behind a kababayan, a Filipina who is innocent but life is in limbo because of an illegal recruiter.

Could there have been more opportunities in the Philippines for mothers like Mary Jane, maybe this could not have happened.

Mary Jane’s case is only one of the many cases of Filipinos overseas who were incarcerated. As long as there are less job opportunities and lower salaries for the Filipino people in the country, many mothers as well as fathers will always try their luck to work abroad just to provide for the family. No matter what the risks are or how painful it is to be away and not to see your children grow. (RTS, RVO, JJE) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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