Thursday, 14 February 2013

NEWSFEATURE: Five OFWs keep creative means of communication to survive war-torn Syria

Modern day heroine … Annie B. Belbes of Pasacao, CamSur is survivor of Syrian civil war.  – Photo by JUAN ESCANDOR JR.

NAGA CITY: War-weary and exhausted from a long journey back home, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) arrived here Friday morning last week narrating how creative means of communications made herself and four other Filipino domestic helpers survive in a neighborhood in Homs, from the start of raging Syrian civil war to their journey to safety at the Philippine Embassy in Damascus and finally to their repatriation.
Annie B. Belbes, 26, a native of Pasacao, CamSur, northwest of this city went abroad as tourist and landed a job in a wealthy Arab household for US$150 a month as domestic helper, credited the use of letters wrapped in plastic with stone weight, sign language, and garbage bin to get them connected and updated with each other until they were rescued by personnel of the Philippine Embassy.
Because of the use of different ways of keeping communication lines open with her family in the Philippines and with fellow domestic helpers trapped there, Belbes and four other Filipino domestic helpers working in the neighborhood of Sad Bin Oubada St, Insha’at, Homs were able to come home safely.
They were five in the loop of which Belbes was the center of their communication line because she was the only one among them who had personal contact with everyone.
When the trouble in Syria escalated to civil war, Belbes was able to share to her four friends the telephone number of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus that her mother sent through text message from Pasacao, CamSur which led them to have contact with the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, then to their rescue and repatriation from the war-torn Arab country.
As the center of communication, Belbes knew her four compatriots by their first names including Zeny, a native of Legazpi City who lived at the back of the building where she was staying.
“Our employers prohibited us to communicate with each other, so we cannot talk to each other because Zeny was on the other building, lest we will be heard by our employers.
“We sneaked for few minutes early in the morning to go up the rooftop while our employers were still asleep and throw our letters at each other side,” Belbes narrated in mixed Bicol and Tagalog.
She has not talked to Zeny but they exchanged letters early mornings up on the roof. 
She learned the latter to be working from 7 o’clock in the morning to 2 o’clock in the afternoon in the house, and then work again in the restaurant owned by Zeny’s employer from 2 o’clock in the afternoon to 2 o’clock in the morning.
Belbes and Zeny communicated by wrapping a stone weight with the letter placed in plastic before throwing each other’s letter to each other’s side of the roof.
Zeny also told Belbes that the former’s cell phone was smashed by her employer to prevent her from communicating with her family and friends.
Months before the violence escalated to civil war, Zeny enclosed money in the letter and asked her to buy a cell phone for her, which Belbes heeded through another domestic helper named Vivian.
Vivian, who lived also in the same neighborhood, met Belbes in a resort owned by Belbes’ employer.
Their employers both allowed them to go out of the house to run errands and dispose of the garbage.
By using the same method with that of Zeny, they communicated through letters wrapped in plastic with stone weight in it. In their case, they placed their wrapped letters anywhere near a big garbage bin which households shared within the vicinity.
“We had to find the letters near the garbage bin before they were picked up [by the garbage collectors].”
Using the cell phone obtained through Belbes and bought for her by Vivian, Zeny called up the former upon her escape to Beirut two months after the Syrian government forces secured the neighborhood from the clutches of the rebel forces in February last year.
Using another way of communication, Belbes exchanged information with another Filipino domestic helper named Marie through sign language.
Marie lived in a two-story house in front of Belbes’ employer’s house.
They shared information at the balcony of the houses by writing with their fingers big letters in the air to deliver their words. She also shared the number of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus through this means.
Belbes said Vivian and Marie were also rescued last year and met together at the Philippine Embassy in Damascus  after their escape.
Belbes also kept communication with Rita, a Muslim and working with an employer who was a friend of Belbes’ employer.
They exchanged information every time Rita visited her place to bring food from Rita’s employer.
She also learned of the contact number of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus and was rescued last year.
Belbes said the Philippine Embassy had called her up before the violence in Syria escalated but she was not ready yet because her employer would not allow her to leave, which virtually kept her trapped in Syria for 10 months.
She vividly recalled how the rallies got bigger and bigger from 2011 until it escalated into civil war when many rally participants were killed and their families and relatives joined rebel forces in Homs to oust President Bashar al-Assad from power.
In 2012, she said, the rebels had occupied the neighborhood where she was staying and the son of her employer and many other people decided to leave to be saved from worsening violence.
She was left to stay with the wealthy Arab couple inside Homs while fighting raged and “bullets rained.”
By Feb 5, 2012, the Syrian government forces raided and attacked the rebels and drove them away and started taking control of the neighborhood on Feb 13, 2012.
She said it was very dangerous to go out of the street because of snipers. As a safety measure, people going out of their homes had to wave a white cloth or handkerchief to show they were not combatants.
Belbes said she lost contact with her family for months because her female employer confiscated her cell phone and returned it to her only in July 2012 which again opened her communication line with her loved ones in the Philippines.
She immediately sent text messages to her mother telling her to find ways for her repatriation and seek help from Rep Diosdado Arroyo and Pasacao Mayor Asuncion Arseño.
But it was only on Dec 2, 2012 that the Philippine Embassy was able to again contact Belbes.
Eight days later, on Dec 10, 2012 she was finally rescued and brought to Damascus.
She stayed there until she was repatriated on Jan 30 and planed in to Manila by Jan 31 and reached her home in Pasacao, CamSur on Feb. 1.
Despite the harrowing experience she went through entering as tourist and working illegally in Syria without salary from February to November 2012, Belbes still hopes to go abroad once more to work as domestic helper to help provide for her poor family. – Bicol Mail


  1. For US150/month? Are our OFW's so desperate enough to leave our country, away from their love ones and work as a domestic helper in a Muslim country?
    Why is this allowed by our government? Is there no work here that gives that equivalent pay?

  2. in Israel, Neighboring country of Syria, we are receiving $800 - 900 as minimum monthly rate, excluding weekly allowance. & you have all your legal rights, effective health insurance,communication, tax returns & express your belief freely. Arab countries are typically backwards. Nakakalungkot ang sinapit ng mga katulad ni Annie.