THE anticipation is high, the adulation real, and various Filipino community groups are now thinking of ways to get his attention, when President Rodrigo Duterte visits the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The last presidential visit was in 2009 when President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo went on a state visit to Saudi Arabia. There are more than 800,000 overseas workers in Saudi Arabia, and several very active Filipino community groups across the desert kingdom.
I only hope that he will be able to visit the embassy shelter and talk to the women who continue to yearn for home. One of them is PahimaAlagasi, a domestic worker recruited from North Cotabato. She has been in the shelter since 2014, and may yet be the longest-staying ward there.
Alagasi’s story is heartbreaking. Her employer’s mother wanted a cup of coffee and was shouting for it from the living room. Pahima, already a victim of physical abuse from both the son and his mother, was frazzled. The OFW dropped the lid of the thermos and bent over to pick it up. She wasn’t aware that the elderly woman had entered the kitchen and was standing behind her. The old woman picked up the thermos and poured hot water on Pahima’s bent body.Pahimaspent three hours on the kitchen floor, crying out in pain.
It was a Filipino nurse in the clinic where Pahima was brought for first-aid treatment that notified the Alagasi family in North Cotabato. The OFW’s sister, Fatima, contacted a distant cousin who was based in Riyadh. He found a way to bring Pahima to the embassy shelter. That cousin uploaded photos on Facebook showing the OFW’s body with swatches of bandage covering and sticking to the third-degree burns. Those photos became viral.
Three years later, and Pahima is still in Saudi Arabia, at the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by her employers. Slander, they said, pointing to the viral photos as evidence. The employer’s mother is allegedly even demanding 800,00 riyals from Pahima in exchange for the latter’s freedom.
I pray and hope that President Duterte will be able to visitPahima. She exemplifies the sufferings and injustices that domestic workers, not just from the Philippines, have to endure while overseas. Her freedom is assured once her case reaches the benevolent ears of the King of Saudi Arabia. It is indeed a travesty that she continues to languish in the embassy shelter, after the lawyer that our embassy contracted to handle her case failed miserably to fight for her rights.
I am convinced that President Duterte truly loves our overseas workers. He would not tolerate any further inaction on Pahima’s case. Perhaps, he would even demand an explanation from embassy officials as to why her case has yet to be resolved. Certainly, he can raise this matter to the level of King Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh.
I also hope that President Duterte would be brought to the “esteraha”. This refers to an empty vacation villa that has been converted into a shelter for stranded male OFWs. The President will find old and sickly OFWs and those still fit to work but are unable to because of non-issuance of IQAMAs, or residence permits, by Saudi employers or expired IQAMAs that were not renewed because the workers left the worksite due to inhumane work conditions.
Recently, the Saudi government announced an amnesty period for all foreign workers with problems concerning immigration penalties, expired IQAMAs and irregular work status. The President can mobilize resources and personnel to make sure that our distressed and stranded workers would be able to benefit from the amnesty offered by the Saudi government. This entails more mobile consular visits covering the different regions of the Kingdom.
In his visits to Qatar and Bahrain, he will find a more relaxed and convivial environment. In Qatar, our Filipino workers would like to request that the embassy stay open on Fridays and Saturdays, the designated free days for most of our workers. This would entail work shifts and designation of officers-in-charge for those two days that serve as “weekends” in the Middle East.
I am happy that millions of OFWs in the Middle East will get to see their “Tatay” in person or at least read about his visits in local newspapers. The President will visit Saudi Arabia from April 10 to 12. He will be in Bahrain from April 12 to 14 and will then visit Qatarfrom April 14 to 16. It may yet become one of his most hectic and memorable trips as our OFWs will be welcoming him with much love and affection, that I am sure it will surprise even his strongest critics.
Have a safe and productive trip, Mr. President!