Some time last week, I found myself in a Malaysian prison.
It’s taken some time to process the experience, and I think I’ve come to grips with it a bit better by now, but it feels as though this newfound awareness I have won’t be going away any time soon, and the best thing I can do is to keep processing why it might have left such a deep impression with me.
To be clear, I didn’t get myself in any trouble. I went to a visit someone I didn’t really know. I had to relay a message to her, in Tagalog, for her to not plead guilty for a crime she’s been accused of committing. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the victim in the matter, and that’s the story I’m choosing to believe.
There’s probably a lot of explaining I could do, but I won’t. I’m not convinced it’s a story I’m supposed to tell. And for her own privacy and protection, it’s best that I don’t anyway.
Here’s what I can say…
My friend Sally works with women fleeing abusive domestic work situations. She’s asked me to come with her a few times to visit some women and help translate if they were native Filipino-speakers. Many of these women are seeking compensation they are owed due to violations on their working contract. Often times, they just want to go back home.
Without going into to much detail here, there’s a cycle in place, wherein the key characters involved are worker, agent, employer, government and embassy. In short, the system is severely lacking in any real accountability, leaving multiple parties complicit in what’s becoming commonplace abuse of domestic workers just hoping to send their earnings back home to their families, through what’s presented to them as a legitimate job.
Outside of this, I will say no more. Again, I’m not entirely sure this is my story to tell, nor is it something I’m fully ready to expose. Not yet, anyway.
All I really know is what I’ve seen and heard. I’ve met several women – usually at the labor department here in Penang – accompanied either by Sally or some other women who have chosen to take up their case after they have fled. It’s always an uphill battle, but there are people here on the ground who have hustled their way towards the right kind of people with actual legal power to help back for these workers what they rightfully deserve.
But the woman we met in prison faces a different sort of battle, entirely. She wants to go home too, but until she begins her trial for assault, she’s stuck in a cell, thousands of miles away from whatever home she has left in the Philippines.
To be truthful, the details of her story remain fuzzy to me. Probably due to a combination of not being able to translate her Tagalog well enough, or the non-linear progression of the events as she recounted them. We had 45 minutes to tell her, over and over again, not to plead guilty at her first hearing (I learned later that she didn’t, to my relief). But Sally and I used most of the time, to try and piece together the story for ourselves.
I can’t share those details here. It’s only fair that I keep those confidential.
I will say this, though…
I won’t be forgetting that experience any time soon. I doubt I’ll forget about her story, tragic and unresolved as it stands. I certainly won’t forget seeing her trying so hard to remain composed throughout our time together, only to break in agony at the mere mention of her family.
We were surprisingly granted nearly an entire hour with her, and it still wasn’t enough. She cried, sparingly, but whenever she did, whatever little ability I had to comfort her in Tagalog felt so strained. I just couldn’t really find the words.
I could only tell her that she wasn’t alone, over and over again. That we were there for her.
And it’s true, Sally and the rest of us involved in this endeavor won’t be giving up. We’ll make the trek to the labor department, and yes, even to prison, just so that she, and others like her, know that they aren’t alone in this.
And yet, who’s to say what this woman’s daily experience is like, locked up in a cell with no real family to comfort her. She remains at the mercy of those taking up her case and advocating on her behalf, in a country, and in a language, not her own.
I can only imagine that feeling a lot like helplessness. She told me, herself, that she was starting to lose hope.
At that point, I nearly broke as well. Since our strange encounter on opposite sides of a glass divider with classic phone receivers, our only means of hearing one another, I’ve fought hard not to forget what I had felt with her that day.
And while I can hardly explain what it is that has remained with me since, why it lingers quietly, but persistently inside me, I know I need to feel it. I just can’t afford to forget.
I can only imagine the inordinate amount of courage she needs to keep her own spirit from breaking. We, her advocates, her only friends, can only do so much on her behalf. I can only pray that, within the confines of her cell, there’s some peace to be found, just enough faith to hold onto, and an abundance of grace to keep her strong – to keep her hoping, still.