By Pia Lee-Brago -Nearly 300 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) fleeing the violence in Syria returned home yesterday in the biggest single repatriation effort negotiated between the two governments.

The repatriates arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) terminal in two batches on chartered flights paid for by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The first batch, composed of 263 OFWs, arrived at 10 a.m. on a chartered Jordan Aviation Airlines Flight JAV 4371.

Another batch of 17 OFWs accompanied by Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis arrived at 4:35 p.m. on Emirates Flight EK 332.

Vice President and Presidential Adviser for Migrant Workers Jejomar Binay, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration chief Carmelita Dimzon welcomed the returning OFWs.

Syrian President Bashar Assad granted the request of the Philippine government to waive the exit visa requirements for the OFWs staying at the Philippine embassy in Damascus.

Del Rosario visited Syria last Sept. 4 and 5 and sought the assistance of Syrian leaders in the repatriation of OFWs. He also negotiated for the waiver of penalties and fees of the repatriates with Syria’s Presidential Adviser on Political and Media Relations Bouthaina Shaaban and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

“Our policy is not to leave anyone behind. Anyone who wants to come home, we will arrange for them to do that,” Del Rosario said.

More OFWs from Syria arriving

Del Rosario said another group of 500 OFWs, including 400 who have finished their contracts, is also scheduled to return home.

“The (papers) of the 400 have been arranged with the Syrian government. It is just a matter of documentation. We are trying to see how we can book another aircraft. As you know this aircraft was provided at zero cost by the IOM,” Del Rosario told reporters at NAIA.

Del Rosario said they also negotiated with the Syrian government for the pullout of at least 200 Filipinos working in Aleppo.

“There is another group of about 200 whom we are going to extract from Aleppo. Aleppo has become a war zone so people should be repatriated. The government no longer functions in that area. We have been able to negotiate with the Syrian government to pull them out,” he added.

Del Rosario said some Filipinos remain in Syria despite the government’s policy to repatriate them because they are well taken care of by their employers.

“There’s nothing we can do. We can’t force them. The same thing happened in Libya,” he said.

Ricardo Casco, executive officer of IOM, told The STAR they paid $400,000 to repatriate the OFWs. He said around 5,000 OFWs remain in Syria.

Maria Cecilia de Caldo, a resident of Negros Oriental, thanked the government for bringing them home. She said they traveled some 300 kilometers from Aleppo to Damascus.

“I thought we could not make it. It’s really a war zone there,” said Joanna Bulaybulay, 31, of Negros Oriental.

Normina Kanapia, 34, a resident of Cotabato, said she escaped through a second floor window of her employer’s house using a rope because she was not allowed to go to the Philippine embassy.

Nolambai Pijcaulan Ukol, 35, of General Santos City, said her employers fled for Saudi Arabia and left her alone in the house.

Cooperate, OFWs asked

Binay, meanwhile, urged the remaining OFWs in Syria to cooperate with the government’s repatriation efforts.

“Thousands of Filipinos remain in Syria. I urge all of them to leave because the situation there is getting worse,” he said.

Binay said the government is coordinating with other international organizations to help in the repatriation of OFWs.

“The government has a reintegration program for the repatriated OFWs. Those who are members of the Pag-IBIG Fund will get moratorium in the payment of their housing loans and they will also get their contributions,” he said.

Pinoy workers recount ordeal in Syria (The Philippine Star) Updated September 13, 2012 12:00 AMComments (6)

[PHOTO -Two of the overseas Filipino workers who fled the civil war in Syria cry upon arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on a flight chartered by the International Organization for Migration on Tuesday. AP]

MANILA, Philippines - Ruth Pana, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Syria, vividly remembers the bullet-riddled windows of her employer’s house in Damascus.

She also remembers Syrian troops killing the son of her employer.

“His chest was opened like there was large steel that passed through it,” she said, sobbing.

“Do you know that we buried him at the back of the house because there were no more cemeteries?”

Pana escaped to the Philippine embassy in Damascus before she was repatriated home on an evacuation flight.

She was among nearly 300 Filipino workers who fled the worsening civil war in the biggest single repatriation effort negotiated between the Philippines and Syria.

On Tuesday, the International Organization of Migration flew them home.

They brought with them tales of horror and sleepless nights as violence between government forces and rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad spiraled out of control.

The 29-year-old Pana said her employer supported the opposition and his son was killed during a recent demonstration.

After the family’s house where she lived and worked was shattered by bullets, they all fled to a neighbor’s basement to escape being caught in the crossfire between government troops and the rebels.

Pana said rebels occupied a military camp behind her employer’s residence, but the military launched a counter-attack and bombardment last week using helicopters.

“If you could just see the bodies, you would be throwing up,” she said.

She said when her employer and his family moved to a rented house, she contacted the Philippine embassy, which sent a car that took her away to the care of Filipino diplomats until she was repatriated.

Her employer initially didn’t want her to leave as she was still under contract, but later relented, Pana said.

Glemer Cabidog, 34, a caretaker of a villa in Damascus for a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, said she would not have returned home if not for the civil war.

“We asked permission from our employer but after three months... he said he won’t allow us to leave,” she said. “That’s why we escaped.”

Cabidog, who was paid $200 a month, said she and another Filipino worker at the villa decided to leave after a clash two weeks ago between Syrian troops and demonstrators in their neighborhood.

“We didn’t want to die there,” she said.

She said they made arrangements with the Philippine embassy to pick them up a week later.

Cabidog said her employer has stayed in Kuwait for the last nine months.

She would get food and other provisions after requesting for supplies from one of his secretaries, who would have them delivered to the compound, she added.

The 263 Filipinos had sought refuge at the embassy until Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario traveled to Syria last week to arrange their evacuation.

Some of the women were crying as they waited for officers from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to process their papers.

Del Rosario said up to 600 more OFWs want to return home.

An estimated 3,000 have decided to stay in Syria for the time being, he added.

Pag-IBIG payment

OFWs repatriated from Syria will receive their Pag-IBIG contributions and will have a moratorium on the payment of their loans, Vice President Jejomar Binay said yesterday.

The chairman of the Pag-IBIG Fund said the last batch of OFWs repatriated from Syria may receive their contributions amounting to as much as P100,000 each. – AP, Jose Rodel Clapano

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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