JEDDAH, 26 August 2007 — It may sound incredible, but a Filipino woman who was hired by a Saudi family in 1987 as a domestic helper is now stranded at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah after working as a shepherdess for 18 years in Al-Baha and weathering unpaid salaries, ice storms and being arrested several times by the police.
“I want to go home as I don’t want to die here,” said Leonora Somera, aged 65, in an interview with Arab News yesterday. “My employer still owes me SR63,000 in back wages, but since it seems he cannot afford to pay me that amount, I’m ready to just go home.”
Misfer Al-Ghamdi became Somera’s sponsor after his father died in early 1988. Somera had joined the family in Riyadh in December of 1987, but after her sponsor died she moved to Al-Baha with her sponsor’s son, his wife and children. There they left her in a large house to look after their goats, while they moved to Makkah for the education of their children.
“I never dreamed that this would happen to me,” the Nueva Ecija native said. “In the Philippines I was working as a bus conductor when my husband died. With a six-year-old daughter to support alone, I had no choice but to seek my fortune abroad. It was a colleague who suggested I apply to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia.”
Left on her own to tend to 42 goats, Somera had to take them up the mountain every morning for grazing and then bring them down in the evening. Her utter isolation was only broken by occasional chats with Filipino nurses who lived nearby and infrequent phone calls from her relatives back home. “The family I worked for only came to Baha during the school holidays. It was then that my sponsor would give me small amounts of money,” she recounted, noting that her monthly salary was only SR500.
Somera said that she occasionally had arguments with Al-Ghamdi over her delayed salaries, but to no avail. She estimates that she was only able to send home SR38,000 in the 18 years she lived in the Kingdom. At times she was so hard up for cash that she was forced to sell some of her goats.
“I ate plenty of fresh fruits, but I don’t like the taste of goat so I couldn’t eat any of my animals. Instead I had chicken,” she explained.
Although the cold weather of Al-Baha forced Somera to constantly wear sweaters and woolen socks, she said she never really felt that lonely there. “I didn’t get lonely though I was alone in the house. I would watch TV in the evenings — but it only had Arabic channels,” she explained.
Despite not feeling lonely, the shepherdess said that she had several run-ins with the authorities who were surprised to see a foreign woman tending to goats in such a remote area. “The police held me several times because I had no iqama or passport with me, but they always released me after I explained that my sponsor lived in Makkah and that this was my only livelihood,” Somera explained.
Asked why she did not run away sooner, Somera said that she was scared to do so because of the remoteness of where she lived. “I could have asked the Filipino nurses to help me, but they were too afraid that the police would blame them later for helping me escape,” she said.
But with Somera’s sponsor heading fast toward bankruptcy, the shepherdess felt increasingly desperate at making ends meet.
She finally put out an appeal through the Filipino community that she wanted to be rescued, and a consular team visiting Al-Baha in December 2005 managed to rescue her and bring her to the center for runaway maids at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah.
Twenty months later, Somera is still waiting to go home. After the consulate helped her file a case with the labor court against her employer to try and get back some of her owed wages, Al-Ghamdi never appeared in court and showed up only once at the consulate in Jeddah.
“He came and spoke to me more than a year ago,” said Philippine Consul General Pendosina Lomondot yesterday. “He pleaded insolvency and gave SR7,000 for Somera. We have never heard from him since.”
Now, even though Somera is ready to go home without having recovered all of her back pay, Lomondot said that she cannot leave until the labor court issues her permission to do so.
“We have to take her to the labor court in Makkah and file the undertaking that she is giving up on her claim,” explained Welfare Officer Abdurajik “Jake” Samain.
Somera’s daughter is now an adult, aged 24, and works in a hotel in Manila.
“Please help me go home,” Somera told this reporter yesterday, “I want to see my daughter.”