x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For some, a bittersweet iftar

For some of the Filipino community's most unfortunate women, it was a time of sorrow at being away from loved ones, but comfort at sharing a spiritual moment with friends.

Women stranded in the UAE and sheltered at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre at the Philippine overseas labour office in Dubai share the iftar meal.
Women stranded in the UAE and sheltered at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre at the Philippine overseas labour office in Dubai share the iftar meal.

ABU DHABI // For more than 100 of the Filipino community's most unfortunate women, it was a time of sorrow at being away from loved ones, but comfort at sharing a spiritual moment with friends. As the maghrib call to prayer rang out at a nearby mosque on Friday, about 150 Muslim and Christian women sheltered at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre at the Philippine overseas labour office in Dubai shared iftar.

Many were housemaids who had fled employers who abused them or withheld their salaries. They are stranded in the Emirates waiting to rejoin their families back home. "My mother doesn't know I'm here," said Hanifa Pangcoga, 33, from Marawi City in the southern Philippines, who has been staying in the shelter for four months. "I don't have a plane ticket, not even a single dirham. I should be having iftar with my family now."

She and an Indonesian housemaid fled their employers' home on April 10 after working unpaid for two months. On the first day of Ramadan, Ms Pangcoga said she and the other Filipina Muslims reflected sadly upon their situation. "Many of us cried that day," she said. "We all miss celebrating the holy month with our families." But as members of the Maranao Community (Marcom) in the UAE - a Dubai-based social group that promotes camaraderie among Maranaos - served iftar to the women on Friday, Ms Pangcoga smiled. "It feels like home. I love pyarun, which my mother prepares," she said.

In addition to that chicken dish, the menu featured beef rendang, biryani rice, a rice noodle dish called pancit, and maja blanca, a Filipino dessert made from coconut milk and corn starch. "We're here to show our love and concern for you," Sahron Roy Tamano, the former president of Marcom, told the women. Maranao is a term used for the people of Lanao. There are between 600 and 800 Maranaos in the UAE, most of them in Dubai and Sharjah.

The group has often joined the Bangsa Moro Labour Organisation (BMLO), another Filipino Muslim group in Dubai, during their quarterly visits to the shelter. Most of the labour issues faced by Filipino Muslim workers are dealt with by the BMLO, made up of Maranaos, Tausugs, Maguindanaoans and Yakans in the southern Philippines. They distribute toiletries, clothes and food to the women. "This boosts their hope," Raqui Llagas-Kunting, the welfare officer in Dubai, said of the iftar. "They feel that many are concerned and are worried about them and eventually, help them return home."

The majority of the women have yet to retrieve their passports from their employers, who require a refund for their recruitment costs. Nearly 50 women do not have air tickets to return home. "We all came here to help our families but we ended up with nothing," said Baisalam Bathing, 31, from Parang, north Cotabato, in the southern Philippines. "This Ramadan is especially difficult for me. I miss celebrating it with my family and going to the mosque for taraweeh prayers."

She sought refuge at the shelter after working for only three days in Dibba last month. "I was hired as a housemaid," she said. "But I fed the goats and chickens in their farm. I couldn't stand the heat outside." Another Filipina Muslim, Amira Diamrod, 25, from Cotabato City, said she was excited about seeing her two-year-old daughter when she returns home this month. Compared to the wide range of dishes served by the Muslim group, iftar in her family home was simple. "We usually had vegetables and dried fish and rarely had chicken and beef dishes," she said.

Richel Ricafort, a 25-year-old Catholic from Cauayan City, 270km north of Manila, said she was not expecting to celebrate Ramadan because of both Muslims and Christians being present at the shelter. She arrived on August 8 after working for two months for an Iranian family in Ras al Khaimah. "My madam poured hot water on my left thigh," she said, showing her scald marks. "She often berated me; she told me I wasn't human, that I was an animal."

Women staying at a similar shelter in Abu Dhabi also have been provided with free iftars since the start of Ramadan, according to Nasser Munder, the labour attaché in the capital. The Red Crescent Authority is donating iftar every day for the entire month. They also gave copies of the holy Quran, shaylas (Muslim head scarves) and prayer mats, he said. @Email:rruiz@thenational.ae