Gemma Cruz Araneta
The unfortunate Jullebee Ranara, a Filipina domestic helper or kasambahay, could not afford to raise her four children so at age 35, she went abroad to seek greener pastures. (Where is the father of her children?) Jullebee ended up in Kuwait, perhaps she was inveigled by an illegal recruiter or a human trafficker; she ended up dead, her body burnt and thrown in a desert in Kuwait like a heap of non-human detritus. According to news reports, the 17-year-old son of her employers is her alleged tormentor and killer. Unfortunately, Jullebee Ranara will not be the last overseas Filipino worker, nor the last domestic helper to suffer such horrendous treatment that caused her death.
Sheik Salem, Kuwait’s minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his deepest condolences to Ms. Ranara’s family and the Philippine government. He said the alleged perpetrator of the crimes is already in jail and will soon be judged and punished. The killer does not reflect the values of Kuwaiti society, its people and government, assured the minister.
Joanna Demafelis, another domestic helper, was found dead in a freezer also in Kuwait, not too long ago. Her employees fled to Syria and were arrested in Damascus. Joanna was 29. In civilized Singapore, a then healthy Filipina maid weighed only 44 pounds when she was rescued from the couple who had starved and over-worked her. Her employers were thrown in jail. Also in Singapore, Thelma Oyason Gamidan was starved for 15 months and made to sleep in a storage closet. Most of the victims of modern-day slavery and human trafficking are isolated from the world, with absolutely no contact with their families nor embassy staff because their passports and cell phones are confiscated. Lately, a group of young Filipinos fell prey to a criminal band that smuggled them into Burma and Cambodia and made to handle online scams operations. Sadly, in Hong Kong, where Filipino revolutionaries took refuge in the 19th century, our domestic helpers continue to be maltreated, lampooned in newspaper cartoons, ridiculed on television and sitcoms. Isn’t there a safe place in the world where Filipina domestic helpers can work safely and in peace?
A few years ago, an Italian friend told me that Filipina domestic workers are considered a blessing in Italy because they are keeping the Italian household intact. She said that the majority of Italian homes are still tri-generational: Grandparents live with their sons or daughters and grandchildren, harmoniously, in one house. Like Filipinos, Italians are loath to sending their aging elderly to nursing homes. However, the vicissitudes of the world economy have taken all that off kilter. The mother was once the keystone of family life; she stayed at home, reigned supreme in the kitchen, bedrooms, pantries and garden, keeping everything in order, like clockwork. Millions of details that overwhelmed husbands and sons were part of a mother’s daily routine.
The world has changed so Italian women have had to work outside the home, be it for self-fulfillment or to bring more food to the table. Not all Italian families can afford to hire foreign domestic workers, but those who can prefer Filipina domestic helpers who have become surrogate keystones of that tri-generational family home. They become the “focolare” who stay at home to minister to the elderly, look after the children and take over household chores. How lucky for the Italian women because the majority of Filipinas who work abroad as maids are usually over-qualified for that position; they are also inherently kind and caring; most of them love to cook and easily learn how to prepare Italian dishes. (I wonder if they serve sweet spaghetti a la Jollibee.)
Apparently, the Italian government has been encouraging Filipino immigrants to bring their families to Italy and opt for dual citizenship. An Italian ambassador once told me that Filipinos are model immigrants and soon there will be new generations of Filipino-Italians who will study, work and contribute to Italy’s progress and strengthen the political bond between the two countries. But , “they will always look for their Filipino roots, ”he said.
Greece is another country where Filipina domestic workers are treated well and encouraged to bring their family members who are given work permits upon request. Some earn well enough to send their children to the International School and send some money to their elders back home.
Overseas Filipino workers are not only holding up the national economy, they are altering the landscape with the houses they build for their parents, spouses and children. The countryside no longer looks like Amorsolo’s idyllic pastures; it is dotted with Swiss chalets, slivers of palazzos, glimpses of the Romanesque or wherever it is the OFW is working. How I wish they could all come home, reunite with their families and uplift our homeland with what they learned abroad.