MANILA, Philippines – Before the break of dawn on Monday, April 17, Annie Delos Santos and her 3 young children landed in Manila, at last able to say they’ve come home.
They are among the 138 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who President Rodrigo Duterte brought home with him after his weeklong visit to the Middle East. (READ: Saudi OFWs raise problems before 'Tatay' Duterte)
A special Saudi Arabian Airlines flight was arranged for them by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. They landed a few minutes ahead of Duterte’s and his delegation’s plane at around 3 am.
“Masaya po. Nagpapasalamat kami kay Presidente na tinulungan niya kaming maka-uwi nang maayos,” Delos Santos said, smiling despite the drowsiness and fatigue from the 9-hour flight.
(I’m happy. I am grateful to the President because he helped us get home safely.)
Her children, aged 2, 4, and 6, are sprawled on the arrival lounge seats, still unable to fully comprehend the momentousness of the occasion – the end of their 3 years being stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Their story began when Delos Santos ran away from her employers because they did not give her and her baby enough food to live on. She married a Filipino and had two other kids. Her husband was able to return home but she and the children were left behind because she could not get the consent of her employers to leave the country. In Saudi Arabia, permission from employers is a requirement for exit visas.
They encountered another problem when her youngest could not be issued an exit visa because he lacked DNA records.
Delos Santos’ story echoes those of her fellow repatriated OFWs, faced with a tangle of bureaucracy and abusive employers’ practices that prevented them from coming home. But, in time for Duterte’s visit, the Saudi Arabian King granted them amnesty and allowed them to return to the Philippines with Duterte.
Victims, not criminals
The 138 OFWs were composed of 63 women, 55 men, and 20 children. Some were stranded for only a few months, others, up to 3 years.
None of these OFWs are guilty of any crime in Saudi Arabia but were stranded because of unresolved issues that prevented them from being given exit visas.
Many are victims of abusive labor practices. In some cases, their employers refused to give them the salary stated in their contracts. In others, there was physical abuse.
Some of the women could not stop from crying into their scarves as they walked through the corridors of the arrival lounge.
Others were more upbeat, shouting jubilantly, “Nakauwi na sa wakas (Home at last)!”
After a few minutes, Duterte, walked into the room, looking just as tired as the OFWs. His fatigue was such that he could not bear to read his entire arrival statement, opting to read only the last page, to the amusement of his audience.
But he seemed to save his energy for the ad libbed parts of his speech in which he liberally cracked jokes, then made solemn promises to help OFWs in the Middle East.
He promised them a hospital in Saudi Arabia dedicated to their needs and “daily” repatriation of stranded Filipinos.
“I will ask them to establish even just a small general hospital to address health needs of our [countrymen]… We will continue to provide so that all Filipinos who want to come home can come home. It’s one way of repaying them for their sacrifices. I’ll make it daily. We will have to spend the money, I will look for the money,” he said.
Duterte repeatedly recognized how OFW remittances help keep the country’s economy afloat.
Because of his weariness and his visit to a soldier’s wake in Batangas that morning, Duterte did not entertain questions from the media.
However, he hung about for a few more minutes to distribute P5,000 each in cash to the OFWs and to pose for photos.
After a group photo with some of the female OFWs, he joked, “Kaya pala, nagtataka ako, bakit wala nang magandang babae sa Pilipinas?” (That’s why, I was wondering, why were there no more beautiful women left in the Philippines?)
On that note, he waved goodbye and walked away, leaving behind a group of tired but amused OFWs.
Aside from the P5,000 from his office, the OFWs also received another P5,000 each from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration for a total “baon” (allowance) of P10,000. Duterte hoped the funds would help them get home and sustain them for their first few days back in the country.
Delos Santos still has a long way to go from the airport as she lives in Basilan, among the southernmost islands of Mindanao.
But as any OFW will tell you, home is worth the sacrifice of an arduous journey. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.