When I was an OFW, I got detained in Saudi

When I was an OFW, I got detained in Saudi
The author when he was an OFW in Saudi —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Thirty-six years ago, I left my wife Malou and our two young sons to take a job in Saudi Arabia. Back then I was called an “overseas contract worker” or OCW, a term that has since morphed into “overseas Filipino worker” or OFW. 

From a college teaching job in the Philippines, I became a supervisor in a transportation rental company in the industrial city of Yanbu. Our company provided car rentals (sedans of all types and brands) and taxi services to Saudi locals, tourists, and expat workers including Filipinos. 

Under my supervision were some drivers, (mostly Indians and Pakistanis, no Filipinos) and two mechanics (one a Filipino). They called me “modir” (manager). When I arrived, I had to learn Arabic double-time as I had to deal with the locals and other clients, as well as subordinates who could not speak or understand English.

Except for intermittent attacks of homesickness marked by sleepless nights thinking of my dear Malou and especially our second son, who was just over a month old when I left, life was fairly good. I was regularly sending a substantial amount to Malou from my monthly pay of US$1,000 (the exchange rate then was P18-20:$1). 

I stayed in an internationally famed hotel. Aside from my regular post, I sometimes did cross-duty at the airport, the town center, and the hotel.

‘Gains’ and ‘pains’

Let me recount some sad observations and an unforgettable experience during my work overseas, if only to provide a glimpse of the “gains” (high income) and the “pains” (family separation and the accompanying psycho-emotional starvation, as well as broken marriages and homes) of the labor diaspora.

Because of homesickness or other factors, many married OFWs enter into extramarital relationships. Unknown to their spouses in the Philippines, not a few manage—through scheming compliance with local laws, such as “multiple marriage”—to acquire a “family or couple accommodation” status. When they are overseas, they cohabit with someone else; when they return to the Philippines, they stay with their spouse and family.

Of course, one can say that philandering is likewise common back home. But for OFWs, the scourge of homesickness because of family separation becomes overwhelming. 

At my workplace, I observed how a number of my fellow OFWs became addicted to gamblingparticularly card games, aside from jueteng and other forms of lottery. I saw how they bet extravagant amounts (greenbacks at that!) and even jewelry and other valuables. Two of my friends were certified gambling addicts—one was a bowling pin boy with a modest salary at the hotel where I was staying; the other was a Filipino American working for a US petrochemical company, with a hefty salary. I remember one of them very well because it was said that in one instance, with no more money and jewelry, he bet his unused original Levi’s.

Every Thursday night before the Friday weekly holiday, my two friends would rent big cars from me to pick up their playmates for overnight gambling. Well, I was not a player and did not know the game, but when they won, they gave me a balato (bonus)—in dollars!


On hindsight, life in my job was laden with seemingly insurmountable temptations. I myself wasn’t spared, but thank heavens I didn’t give in. I remember, for example, a Caucasian woman, the wife of an American expat worker, who regularly took a taxi for her routine aerobic exercise sessions. One day she called to book a taxi, but there was no available driver. She asked if I could drive her instead—and I agreed out of courtesy, just for that occasion. 

The next time around, she insisted that I, and not the assigned guy, drive for her. She also told me to come to their rented villa—her husband was out at work—as she had prepared food for me and she wanted to show me something. Quite alarmed, and knowing how strict the local laws were, I refused and sent the driver assigned to her.

My office was located beside a hospital, and the arrival of a Filipino female nurse or hospital worker was always welcome news for male OFWs. During the first few weeks of duty of the new hospital employee, she would be visited by suitors bringing flowers, chocolates, etc. Some of my friends would even rent a luxurious car (American- or German-made) from me just to show off to the newly arrived Pinay.

At times, I received invitations to clandestine parties of Filipinos, and would be surprised to find that female OFWs were around. These secret gatherings were perfect occasions for brewing extramarital relations.

Beset by these threats to marital unity which were exacerbated by my seemingly incurable homesickness, after over a year I thought of cutting my contract short and returning home. I tried requesting my employer for a family accommodation visa so I could have my wife and sons come and stay with me. My employer denied my request, so I decided to fly home, the air fare at my own expense.

I told my wife about my decision and she was initially reluctant to agree. I told her: “Look, I have a hundred and one reasons why I have to stay overseas—the pay, etc., etc. But I only have one reason for coming home: It’s you and our family. I don’t want to let our children grow up in my absence.”

Journal entries

But, alas, before I could get home, I was detained for several days!

Here’s the nitty-gritty of what happened, as culled from my long-kept journal: 

Day 1. My travel itinerary was Yanbu-Jeddah-Bahrain-Hong Kong-Manila. I left Yanbu airport at 9 a.m. At 9:50 a.m., I arrived at Jeddah airport, where I changed my money into US dollars.

I left at 2 p.m. for Riyadh together with other Filipinos. Our plane landed in Riyadh around 3:25 p.m. and we were advised to remain seated. After 15 minutes, our passports and plane tickets were collected and we were told to disembark, purportedly to identify our luggage. 

At the airport, we were informed that we could not get to Bahrain because the Manila airport, our end destination, could not confirm our flight. It was closed because of a reported coup d’etat (the coup attempt against President Corazon Aquino’s administration in 1989). We stayed at Riyadh airport for one to two hours, after which we were told to board another plane back to Jeddah. 

We arrived in Jeddah around 7:30 p.m. We were immediately jostled into the immigration area and segregated into two groups—those with exit-reentry visas and those with exit-only visas. I was with the latter group of 17 Filipinos.

We were then packed into a small air-conditioned room with chairs set against the walls and a restroom. We slept on the floor; there were no beds. In the same room at the rear portion were 16 detainees of different nationalities who had been languishing there for quite a while. Immigration authorities kept our passports; our plane tickets remained with us.

Day 2. We were told to call our sponsor-employers, who should pick us up at the airport, cancel our plane reservations, and have these rebooked. The reason, according to immigration authorities, was: We had already accomplished our exit documents and, thus, were no longer supposed to be around. In short, we had become illegal aliens!

In my case, there were two problems: First, my exit visa was stamped when I was still in Yanbu. Second, the exit form or slip which I gave to our company representative in Jeddah, which was supposed to be presented by the sponsor in picking me up, was sent to Yanbu the day before. So, I had to stay. Meanwhile, a few of the other Filipinos were fetched by their employers.

Day 3. Fighting was still raging in Manila and there was no flight to Manila yet, or so the guard told us. We were now only nine. The phone booth being just outside the door, I again called our company branch in Jeddah; I was advised to wait for someone to pick me up. 

I waited until midnight. Nobody came.

Meanwhile, we were locked in the room and treated like criminals by immigration guards. We were not allowed to stand by the door. The only chance I could use the phone booth was whenever the guard entered the room to count us. I had to appeal to him several times in the day before my request was granted. But we were given food thrice daily—at 4 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 9:30 p.m.

Day 4. Only four of us Filipinos remained in the room. I didn’t call my employer anymore. I felt that my chances of getting fetched were becoming slimmer.

Day 5. We were told that the Manila coup was over and that the airport opened in the afternoon. But there was no scheduled flight yet for Manila.

Day 6. One airline started its first flight to Manila at 10:30 p.m. But we were booked for another airline, which was scheduled to operate its Bahrain-Hong Kong-Manila flight the next day.

Today, the lights in our room were turned off for around SIX HOURS for reasons unknown. In complete darkness, I lay down with my attaché case as a pillow, profusely reciting the rosary on my fingers. What kept my strength and perseverance up was the persistent thought of being reunited with Malou and our sons.

Day 7. At 4 a.m., a man from the airline came asking for our plane tickets. But at 7 a.m., the same man informed us that our Bahrain-Hong Kong flight was not yet confirmed, and that we should just stand by.

Day 8. At last, we were freed! We were escorted by immigration guards all the way to the plane. It was so humbling and so disgusting an experience. Still, I was excited to see my family.

Here’s my closing thought. I must admit that recounting my experience evoked feelings of relief, of healing, of closure. But I’d like to say that my seemingly appetizing life overseas that ended in a wrenching journey home didn’t crush my spirit.  All the more, the harrowing experience made me stronger. 

What kept me going was my consuming love for Malou and our sons. As I have always told her: “Whatever the cost, no matter what happens, I’ll always come home to you!”

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