Syria conflict: Filipinos caught up in violence

Filipino protesters in Manila, March 2012 The number of Filipino workers abroad has been the subject of discontent

Thousands of Filipinos, many working illegally, are caught up in the continuing violence in Syria, despite efforts by the Philippine government to bring them home.

Living in the Philippines, I have become very used to the idea that a substantial part of the population is missing - one out of every nine Filipinos works overseas.

They leave close-knit, often rural, communities to work in far-away cities, as nurses and construction workers, teachers and doctors, cleaners and sailors.

But because Filipinos can be found all over the world, world events can sometimes resonate right back to the Philippines. And that is what has happened with the crisis in Syria, where at least 7,000 Filipinos are caught up in the turmoil. Until a few days ago, Janice Devena was one of them.

I went to meet her in a government-run halfway house in downtown Manila. She was clearly happy to be back - smiling broadly as she shepherded around the dozen or so other women who had flown back with her, eager to tell me their stories.

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Janice's situation is typical. A single mother with two children, from a small town on the island of Mindanao, she didn't have many career options. So when a neighbour asked if she wanted to become a domestic helper overseas - earning about four times as much as she would back home - she jumped at the chance.

Often foreign workers have to pay cash up-front, for the plane ticket and recruitment agency fees. But if she went to Syria, the recruiter said, she wouldn't have to find any money in advance, as she would get it deducted from her salary instead.

Janice did not need much persuading. As soon as her parents had offered to look after her two young sons, off she went.

Her employers - a rich Damascus family - were nice to her, and she said their three children ended up becoming closer to her than their own mother. Thinking of them from the safety of Manila, her eyes welled up with tears.

Every time she asked her employers what was happening, they would say it was nothing serious. But there are only so many times that you can wake up at 2am with bombs exploding around you before you know that it really is serious.

Janice Janice Devena eventually got an exit visa

She told her employers she did not want to die in Syria - she had her own family to think about back in the Philippines - and she eventually persuaded them to get her an exit visa.

Some of Janice's companions had far worse experiences. Aimee had been working in a house that was bombed to the ground. She turned up at the Philippine embassy with only the clothes she was standing in.

Newly-married Ria was physically abused by her employers. Afraid to stay indoors yet also afraid to go outside, she phoned the embassy in secret after locking herself in the bathroom.

And then there was Miriam - a small, shy woman sitting at the back of the group. After a lot of coaxing from Janice, she said she had tried to leave Syria many times, but it took four months for the authorities to let her go.

It turned out they first wanted her help to arrest her employer. He was one of President Bashar al-Assad's bodyguards, but had defected and was on a wanted list. Miriam had had absolutely no idea about any of this.

It was easy for the Syrian authorities not to let these women leave, because they should not have been there in the first place.

According to the Philippine foreign ministry, more than 90% of Filipinos working in Syria are there illegally.

Janice and her companions arrived in Damascus on tourist visas, without any official papers. So in order to leave, they had to pay a fine and obtain an exit permit - on top of paying for a flight out.

Rosario Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario is keen to trace Filipinos in Syria

It is an expense that is beyond these women, and something the Philippine government is helping with, but it is a painfully slow process. And that is if the women can even be found. They are working in separate houses, all over the country, and there are few records of who is where.

Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario is a gentle man with an easy smile, but it is a smile that quickly turns into a look of concern when he talks about the Filipinos still in Syria.

He has sent a special team to give out leaflets in the major cities, make radio announcements and even go house-to-house if necessary, trying to find as many of these women as he can.

As for Janice, now she is back in the Philippines, her main priority is to spend time with the children she has not seen for two years. Her youngest son has learned to talk in her absence, and she says she cannot wait to see his progress.

But despite everything that she and her friends have gone through, not a single one of them is planning to stay in the Philippines for long. They all have plans to work abroad again - many of them as soon as possible. "Not in Syria, though," Janice quickly added.

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