KUWAIT: Filipino domestic helpers arrive on a direct flight from Manila to Kuwait early yesterday. - Photo by Ben Garcia

By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: The first flight carrying domestic helpers arrived in Kuwait yesterday after the Cabinet decided last month to allow domestic helpers to return directly to the country. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, passengers from 34 countries cannot fly directly to Kuwait, and have to spend at least 14 days in a third country before arriving here. After being stranded for almost a year in the Philippines, 61 Filipino domestic helpers arrived at Kuwait International Airport at 4:40 am yesterday and were taken directly to hotels around Kuwait to spend 14 days in quarantine.

According to the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait, around 20,000 Filipinos, a majority of them domestic helpers, are currently stranded in Manila. Among the returnees yesterday was Michelle Balena, 31, who left Kuwait for a vacation to the Philippines in Nov 2019. But when she was about to return to Kuwait, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suspended deployment of Filipino domestic helpers due to killing of yet another Filipina maid in Kuwait. Her employer then rebooked her flight to Kuwait for March 20, 2020.

However on March 15, Kuwait suspended all commercial flights to curb the spread of the coronavirus. While in the Philippines, Michelle's iqama expired, but her employer managed to renew it after the Kuwaiti government allowed the renewal of all residencies even if holders are out of Kuwait. Her employer paid her airfare and also for the 14-day hotel quarantine in Kuwait. "Everything is paid for, so I am glad to be back and hope to stay with this family for more years," Balena said.

"When I was in the Philippines my employer never stopped communicating with me. She used to call and ask what I needed, she sent money almost every month, and said she is waiting for my return," said Balena, a mother of three who hails from Tulunan. Balena had already started a new life in Cotabato selling street food with her husband. "I was making a good profit, but of course it was temporary, so I told my husband I will take the chance again to go back to Kuwait, since my employer has been good to my family. He said okay, so here I am again," she said.

Esmy Marie Zoleta, 36, from Santiago City, took her third vacation after completing almost seven years with her employer. She left Kuwait in Feb 2020. When she was about to return on March 15, she was stopped by airport authorities as all commercial flights were suspended. "I was at the airport for my return to Kuwait, but authorities at the airport told me to wait for a new announcement. So I returned to Isabela to my two children. My employer sent me money during the past 10 months, so I was able to send my children to school. I am planning to work until my kids are done with their schooling," she said.

Marlene Cayao from Sta Maria faced a similar situation. She was about to return in March but the commercial flight ban prevented her from coming back on time. "I had completed my two-year contract when I returned to the Philippines in February. In March, no one was allowed to fly back to Kuwait, so I was stuck in Pangasinan. I returned because my employers were very kind to us. They would always call and send money, and helped us a lot," she said.