My OFW friend

All here life I have been helping my family at the farm, especially during the harvest season. But as I grew older, I started to strive for independence, so I decided to become a working student in Manila. During that time I stayed with some other relatives and helped them with the household chores and babysitting, while pursuing my studies. It was hard and challenging, because I hardly had any time for myself, but I was determined to achieve my goals.

I have I always felt there was something missing in my life. I didn’t know what it was I was searching for, but I knew I had to change something in my life.

A friend in Manila was encouraging me to become an OFW and my adventurous nature drove me to leave the country. I thought I might be able to find overseas what was missing in my life.

I left for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1995 for a two-year contract, when I was 26 years old. People told me I shouldn’t go to an Arabic country and warned me of the massive cultural differences, but I wanted to make my own experiences.

When I arrived I already knew that things wouldn’t be as expected. Even though I arrived in my employer’s home late at 2 in the morning, I had to get up at 6 a.m. and start to work; not as a babysitter as written in my contract, but as a domestic helper.

And even the number of the family members I had to look after was not as I was told. Instead of three people I had to clean up the mess of six people.

The two-year contract I signed assured me of a US$250 salary a month, but I was only paid US$200. I was told it was due to a salary deduction for agency fees, so I accepted it because I had no other choice. I was already in Saudi Arabia and I would rather work for less money than leave right away without a single dollar. I wouldn’t be able to help my family at all, if I do not accept these conditions and helping my family to have a better life was my biggest motivation.

My daily life in Riyadh was not really livable. The family I was working for held back my salary and sent it straight back to the Philippines, so there was nothing left for me. I did not even have days off where I could do things I could have spent my money on.

Apart from the language barrier I had to deal with and which challenged me a lot because Arabic is really hard to pick up, most of the time I had to stay inside and was not allowed to leave the property. To adapt myself to the Arabic culture I had to wear a Burka, which is a robe that veils one’s whole body except for a little slit for the eyes. There were a few Filipinos around who maybe could have given me a sense of home, but I was also not allowed to talk to them. I was isolated for most of the time and I felt really lonely.

I was not satisfied at all with my working conditions, but I was also afraid, that it would have been my fault if I would have reneged on my contract. I didn’t want to get fined by the agency and return to the Philippines with no money in my pocket.

Things became worse and turned into a nightmare when the man of the family started to take an interest in me. He tried to get my attention and kept on touching me, even though I ignored it and showed him that I do not want what he was doing to me.

I felt really uncomfortable every time he was around me and he probably knew that I was avoiding him. So he found other ways to catch me alone. One day, someone knocked three times at my door, the same way the boy I was looking after would knock. This time the man entered instead. He approached me and started to touch me and tried to kiss me. I knew what he wanted and there was nothing I could do. There was no way for me to escape. I said to him, “Do what you want, but kill me afterwards.”

But even this intense expression didn’t make him stop. So the last thing I could think of to make him leave me alone was to address his faith. I started chanting words of Allah which are sacred for Muslims for 20 times or more. My desperate try to make him remember that he is a human being and not an animal made him eventually desist and he promised me that this will never happen again.

But he did not keep his promise. There was another time when he started another advance. I was alone with him in the elevator and suddenly he put his hand on my mouth and came closer to me. I immediately dropped the watermelon I was carrying at that time to show him that I don’t like what he was doing. I made it clear that I did not want all this. He broke his promise. How could I trust that he would not attempt another try? I wanted to leave the country before the contract was finished and asked for my passport which was taken away from me and retained by the family. I had no choice, but the husband convinced me to stay and promised me again that he will leave me alone. All he wanted was for me to stay, because they could not find another ‘babysitter’ like me.

The wife treated me nicely. She did not know about the attempts of her husband. But the daughter-in-law, who was also living with them, looked down on me and would always rush me with the cleaning. She didn’t really treat me like a human being, but more like an unworthy working machine. I wondered why some people enjoy bossing others around? I always had to help the other Indonesian domestic worker, because I couldn’t afford to watch someone working while I just sit around.

Another hard time I experienced was the time during Ramadan. During this month, Muslims only eat before and after sunrise. I also had to conform to this tradition, so I was not allowed to eat during daytime. I had to be awake until 3 a.m. and because I was starving I would hide in the bathroom to eat. Sitting there inside the bathroom, a place where one is not supposed to eat, made me realize how undignified my life was.

All I could do to have the strength to go through all this was to think of my family and the thought of being able to help and support them. I always had to keep that in mind, which was sometimes really hard, because I haven’t had any contact at home. I was able to talk to my ‘sister’ on the phone only once. But even that one call lasted only for 10 minutes.

Sometimes the family would buy me expensive necklaces and give me money as a present, probably just to make them feel better. But they meant nothing to me. They wanted me to extend my stay because they said no one could replace me. The husband argued that other friend’s families also have Filipino maids and that it would be normal. But I told him that I am different. After two years, I finally returned to the Philippines.

I went back to the province and stayed at my family’s farm to help those people who helped me and gave me a home. From the money I saved in Saudi Arabia, I was able to buy 1.5 hectares of land for my family and I started a small business.

But it did not turn out to be profitable and I wanted to keep on supporting my family. So after 6 months of being home, I decided to leave the Philippines and my family for a second time. This time around, I left for Abu Dhabi which is supposed to be not as strict as Saudi Arabia.

Before I left for Abu Dhabi, I had to attend an orientation seminar at the OWWA. I was asked to share my experience as an OFW at the 3-day orientation in front of 120 people. I was unprepared and quite nervous to speak in front of so many people, but I tried. I warned them that their expectations to become lucky and rich might not come true, that they would be separated from their families and be lonely.

“Before you go abroad to work as an OFW, you have to be aware of the sacrifices you have to make. You have to be strong because once you are overseas you don’t have a choice,” I told them. It’s important to always ask yourself what is right for you and what’s not. You should listen to yourself and follow your inner voice.

I also shared my experiences about the harassment and the rape attempts. To lighten the mood, since it was a sad story I was relating to them, I tried to make a joke out of my experience. I told them that the harassment and rape attempts were not written down in the contract which I signed.

The second time I worked as an OFW, I had a three-year contract as a storekeeper. My contract included a provision that I will be provided with free accommodation and transport but it turned out that my rent of 650 dirhams would be deducted from my salary. Even though there was not much left from my earnings to save, the circumstances in Abu Dhabi were much better than in Riyadh. I had a day off, was free to talk to anyone I wanted to, and could pretty much decide about my daily routine on my own. There was a Filipino community around me, and most of the people I shared a flat with were from the Philippines.

This time however, I had troubles getting used to the heat in Abu Dhabi, which was about 44 degrees Celsius. One day, I was struggling from the heat and was really feeling bad. I had to go inside an office to cool down. It turned out the office was involved in the business of selling products made from aloe vera.

The people in the office gave me some aloe vera to take and it helped me to cope with the heat. After that I never had problems with my heart again. I was so impressed that I wanted to learn more about it and educate myself about selling the product.

I also thought it might be a good source of income, parallel to my actual job. Until now I am still into selling aloe vera products.

It seems to me that Filipinos have the reputation of being bought. Once a guy on the street asked me how much a night with me would cost. I thought that was really rude, so I decided to teach him a lesson. I said 500 dirhams, which is quite cheap. As I expected, he told me to wait for him while he went to get the money.

In the meantime, I called the police which would pick him up when he returns. I could have just run away from him, but I am not like that. In Riyadh, I stood up for myself and what I believed in and I would do the same in Abu Dhabi. I also never stopped going out and enjoying my life abroad. When I went out on my own to bars, there were advances from men almost every night. But I didn’t care about all the attempts and did not let them spoil my time.

It is hard to predict the way people would act at times. Taking a cab for example was always difficult. Sometimes they wouldn’t take notes and at other times they don’t want you to pay with coins. I could never tell what I was supposed to do. I remember one situation when the driver asked me once to pay with a kiss. I said no, left the cab, threw the money at him and slammed the door. It surprised me that the next time I saw this driver, he acted like nothing happened and was friendly like he used to be before this incident.

Summing it all up, I would say that people from other cultures also have five fingers just like us; but these fingers are not the same.

The lesson I learned from my experiences as an OFW which I want to pass on is that, one should learn how to save for themselves and for their family. If you earn good money in the Philippines, you don’t need to go abroad. If there is no need to go, don’t go. One should be aware that distance could sometimes destroy a family.