Dearest Merlita

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TOOTS OPLE

I COMMISERATE with you on the death of your husband, Roger. He was a good man who struggled in Saudi Arabia for several years in order to give you and your four children a better life. Your brother-in-law, Charlie, told me that your husband died a few days after undergoing an appendectomy at the Dammam Central Hospital. His ailment was not confined to his appendix. It turned out that he had stomach cancer, and must have been enduring so much pain for the past several years.

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Roger Dignadice was a brave man. He stood up for his rights when the company that he worked for refused to pay his salary on time. When the company finally declared bankruptcy, Roger fought back by filing a case with the Saudi labor court. The company turned off the electric power and deprived your husband and his co-workers of running water that would have made the workers’ accommodations livable. I can only imagine how he felt, for two long years, waking up each day to nothing, yet holding on to his dream of claiming the wages that he was clearly entitled to.

Throughout these extreme hardships, your husband never gave up. He was fighting for you and for the children. You were his inspiration. Two weeks after Roger’s operation, he died a solitary figure in a hospital filled with strangers. Your husband had no inheritance to pass on, no savings to bequeath, except for the integrity of his name. Given the current state of the world, that is more than enough.

I am pained by what you, as a widow, had to go through. For two years, Roger could not call or text you because he had no money to do so. His company, Rajel H. Al Marri and Son, evaded all responsibility for Roger’s unpaid wages and none of its owners or managers even cared to offer assistance upon learning of his death.

I am outraged because despite such tragic circumstance, you felt the need to travel from Iloilo to Manila to follow up on your family’s request for Roger’s body to be sent home. Until now, as I write this, Roger remains in the morgue. He died on March 11, 2017. You have been waiting nearly four months for his repatriation. I cannot understand why the burden has fallen on your shoulders to keep following up on the repatriation of his remains. He died of natural causes. There were no autopsy requests or a police investigation to account for such delays.

The Department of Foreign Affairs could have acted faster on your request considering that it has enough officers and resources in the field. I am disappointed because the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration also knew about Roger’s status as a stranded OFW and could have immediately informed the head office about his predicament with a request for humanitarian assistance for the family.

According to the DFA, Roger left behind an outstanding hospital bill amounting to SR14,284, or the equivalent of P188,000. This is but a drop in the bucket given the size of the DFA’s Assistance to Nationals Fund. Had the consulate immediately sent a request for hospital bill payment, Roger would have been buried by now. A review of how our diplomatic posts and the DFA’s regional and central offices handle requests for repatriation of remains is called for.

Merlita, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center where I work, could only hold your hand as we jointly lobbied for immediate action and feedback from the DFA and OWWA. To help you in the days to come, the Villar SIPAG Foundation led by Sen. Cynthia Villar provided you with a modest capital and goods to start a small sari-sari store. I am sure that while these acts of kindness do help, you would also prefer to see that no OFW spouse go through the same experience that you, as a widow, did.

You deserve compassion in every government-related communication, be it a phone call or text or even an e-mail message from our officers in the DFA and OWWA. You deserve space to grieve, in the privacy of your home, instead of leaving your children in Iloilo as you follow up on the shipment of your beloved husband’s remains.

I write this open letter addressed to you with a prayer that it also reaches the desks of Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd. May they find it in their hearts to listen to your story, acknowledge your husband’s sacrifices as an OFW, and initiate reforms so that every similar request be treated henceforth with utmost urgency and sensitivity.

Your life is far from over. Roger would have wanted you to lead it with hope, courage and dignity like he had despite all the odds that came his way. You and your children will always be in my thoughts and prayers. Ka Roger, may you find peace in the afterlife in the company of God and all His angels.

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