The case of Lurlyn Abrasaldo and many brave men and women who flee
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – Lurlyn Abrasaldo listened attentively to the spirited exchanges of participants of the public forum on February 16 with Philippine undersecretary for migrant workers affairs Sarah Lou Arriola. Arriola just came from her tour of duty in the Middle East, a few days when the remains of domestic help Joanna Demafelis was brought back to her native Iloilo. Demafelis, 29, was found dead in a freezer, presumably murdered for more than a year. This prompted Pres. Duterte to bring back Filipinos working in Kuwait who may have been suffering abuses by their employers.
Media practitioners and community leaders gathered for the meeting with Arriola called for by the Consul General Tess de Vega at the Philippine Center on 5th Avenue. When matters on immigration and human trafficking are on the table, the conversation would always be long and painful, with no fast and easy recourse in sight.
Arriola had expressed her impression that immigration problems in the US are not that overwhelming compared to what most Filipinos in Kuwait or Hong Kong for instance, face. By and large, that is true. Immigration patterns of Filipinos in the US are ushered in primarily by marriages and consequently, by family petitions. In the Middle East or Europe, Filipinos generally migrate as workers, either in domestic or industrial settings. Lately, the Department of Foreign Affairs had earmarked a Php 1 million budget to repatriate abused workers who chose to go home.
The forum had brought me a rush of painful memories shared by my friends Linda and Jovy who used to work in the Middle East. I remembered ate Linda who told me that as a personal assistant to a princess in Kuwait, she did not feel she was a human being. “Hindi ako tao duon. Alila ako, (I was not a human being there, I was a slave),” she said. Ate Linda managed to escape the palace after finding out that her co-worker was missing. This co-worker was found to have a relationship with another co-worker in the palace.
Then I remembered Jovy, feisty and funny, who easily dismissed that her human trafficking experiences in Florida was nothing compared to her miserable life in the hands of her rich employers in Saudi Arabia. “She would slap me or spit on my face at the slightest mistake. She would even tell me I should be grateful that she did not kill me,” Jovy recounted. One day, she decided to escape and sought refuge at the Philippine embassy in Kuwait and eventually flew back to Manila.
A few months later, Jovy found a housekeeping job for a hotel in Florida. But then, it turned out she was a victim of human trafficking by her Manila-based recruiter who exacted thousands of dollars from her as placement and recruitment fees. In the US, she was buried in debt and was under the control of her recruiters. She escaped again, and fled to New York where legal and social help had been accessible.
For me, government and private support organizations are only secondary actors to end these abuses. The victims themselves have to take the first brave and bold step whether the brutality is by their spouses, employers, and traffickers.
I had earlier shared during the forum the need for regular and intensive education on human rights, because if people knew their basic right to life, leisure, rest, medical benefits, and economic pay, they would have the choice to not be dormant. Knowledge is fundamentally empowering. They would have the mindset to free themselves from violence, and at best, fight back.
When it was time for Lurlyn Abrasaldo to talk, all was quiet at the Kalayaan Hall.
She was married to Brian Kingwell, an American, who according to Lurlyn, made her a slave in their car trading business in South Carolina. She told us a matter-of-factly how she was ordered around by her husband to work for long hours everyday, cleaning cars and doing house chores. She was forced to be a sex slave by in what seemed like a perverted kind of group sex for business associates. In less than a year, Lurlyn managed to escape from her husband. She sought police and welfare help, which did not come easy. But she persisted. Her husband tracked her down on social media and withdrew his spousal petition. Lurlyn fled to New York and is currently given assistance by the organization Damayan. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), she petitioned herself and is awaiting the release of her Green Card.
In the US, VAWA and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) are legal instruments for abused individuals, whether by their spouses, employers, and recruiters. And it is a matter of admitting one’s shameful and painful condition to begin the journey outside the shadows. Then help could come in, whether legal, medical or psychological.
Slowly but surely, I believe the Filipino community here is taking cognizance of the painful but hidden truths of human and labor trafficking cases. it takes courage and bravery to get out of the cloak of modern-day slavery. But that is the start. As for us in the communications industry, my take is to constantly inform the public of their basic rights and the right to due process.
The longer haul is the prosecution of traffickers and domestic abusers, who are powerful, well-connected, rich. But we have to start with the victims who say enough, and wanting to save themselves.
(Postscript: In May 2018, OSM! received an email from a certain Brian Kingwill denying the allegations of Lurlyn Abrasaldo with a document that he has submitted himself to a lie detector test. Kingwill lambasted OSM!, particularly this writer, for having assisted a “scammer, bigamist, adulterer.” He also said to have his name “removed immediatly.” Kingswill has created a blog site citing the writer’s “lack of ethics” for having named him following Lurlyn’s testimonial.)