SARAH BALABAGAN is working overseas again and looks forward to one day returning to the Middle East.
More than 15 years ago, Sarah made headlines when, as an underaged Muslim girl from Maguindanao illegally recruited to work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she overturned a death sentence for stabbing and killing an employer who attempted to rape her. The international outcry and the passionate appeals by the Philippine government got her a lighter sentence of two years in jail and 100 lashes, but only after the payment of P1 million in blood money.
Today, Sarah spends four to five months a year abroad as a full-time Christian inspirational speaker. In the United States west coast, where she spent over four months in two separate tours last year, churches and sponsors promote her talk as ?The ?New? Sarah Balabagan Story,? a takeoff from her biopic released in 1997.
Just back from a three-month stint in the US, Sarah told the Inquirer over coffee at a mall in Makati City last week that she was in the final stages of setting up her own foundation to help overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who had been abused recover from their trauma.
She hopes to launch it next month before she leaves for yet another long speaking tour in America, with possibly an extended leg in Canada.
Her own recovery makes up much of the testimony she shares with her audiences.
Sarah, who turned 31 on Monday (Aug. 16) and recently divorced her husband of seven years, Russell Vergara, admits she has survived not one, but two scrapes with death?the first in the UAE?s Al-Ain prison in 1995 where she was subjected to 100 lashes, the second in a dark cell of depression in 2003 that had her wishing she had not survived her prison ordeal.
Articles about her in the US express hope she does not face yet a third death threat from her religious conversion, which is forbidden in some Muslim countries. But Sarah sighs and just smiles. She says she has not actually joined another Church or prayed before idols. What she has, she explains, is ?a very personal relationship with Jesus,? who she sincerely feels saved her from the brink of suicide.
From prison to show biz
She relates that when she was finally released from prison and returned to Manila in August 1996, she was feted and swept into yet another world?show biz.
The media attention was intense. She had always loved singing and was thankful for the voice scholarship arranged for her with the Center for Pop Music. Her first recital led to a recording contract with Sony in 1999. This also came with many invitations for concerts here and abroad.
?The Sarah Balabagan Story,? the controversial movie about her experience in the Middle East, reportedly earned for her over P4 million.
She was also given the chance to return to school, having only finished Grade 5 because of her family?s poverty. After passing a Department of Education test that granted her a high school diploma, AMA Computer College accepted her as a mass communications student.
Then Sarah dropped out of school. Everything was happening so fast and Sarah found herself pregnant in 1998 after a short affair with a media personality.
?I didn?t know how to deal with suddenly being a mother, a single mother at that,? she recalls. She found a new love partner in Vergara, a backup dancer, in 2000 and she had two more children. But she now admits that when she married him in 2003, she was in the throes of a deep depression.
She reveals that the trauma of the past had haunted her. She knew the signs?the welts on her back would start to throb.
?When I felt stressed and angry, my back would ache. I would remember the painful lashes in the Al-Ain prison,? she says.
There were times, she says, that she regretted having survived. ?Sana namatay na ako noon. Sana hindi na ako nabuhay ( I wish I had died back then. If only I hadn?t survived).?
One of 14 siblings from a poor family in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, Sarah was only 14 years old when she went to work as a domestic helper in the UAE in 1994. (The recruiter had listed her age on her passport as 28). The abuse started barely a month after she began work at the home of the elderly Mohamed Al Baloushi. At the end of that fateful night, the elderly employer lay dead with 34 stab wounds. She was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1995. After appeals by various officials, the victim?s family accepted blood money (donated by businessman William Gatchalian) and her sentence was commuted to prison time and 100 lashes.
?I can take it?
She was 16 then, still a minor, and there were concerns that her bones were not strong enough to withstand the lashes. So the penalty was divided into 20 lashes a day for five days.
When then Philippine Ambassador Roy Señeres and other international officials came to visit Sarah in between the lashings, she had told them: ?Kayang kaya ko (I can take it).?
?It wasn?t true,? she now shares. ?Ang sakit-sakit talaga yung ginawa sa akin. Pero naisip ko, kung magreklamo pa ako, baka papatigil pa, mag-uusap pa, at matatagalan na naman ako? Tiniis ko na lang para matapos na?( The lashings were so painful. But I thought, if I complained, they might have it stopped, there might be more negotiations and it would just prolong my ordeal... I bore it just to get it over with).?
Poignant moments she remembers were the warm hands of other Filipino women in jail who massaged her back with warm water when she was brought back to the cell. There were no wounds because she was allowed to wear a T-shirt during the whippings, she says. Then she would be brought back again, her back still swollen, for the next round of lashes. She could not sleep on her back for days. It took months before the pain went away.
The country celebrated her release, happy she survived. But Sarah had somehow lost what most torture victims say is a crucial part of the healing process?if not the opportunity to seek redress, at least an acknowledgement of the cruel, humiliating and degrading punishment.
Reliving the trauma
Back home, when she was singing on stage or partying with friends, she would forget. But suddenly everything came rushing back. In her mind, she was again in her dark cell.
A close friend in the recording industry, the popular singer, Dulce, introduced her in 2003 to Pastor Augusto Cesar Maribujoc.
Reliving those moments with the pastor, Sarah finally cried the tears of a little girl hurt by the whipping.
The pastor shared with her the story of the lashes also inflicted on Jesus Christ. That was my turning point, she says. She had watched the movie, ?The Passion of the Christ,? and cried.
After this, Sarah says she underwent three months of group counseling under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
?Little by little I could feel my anger subside,? she says.
Slowly, she was able to work out her problems. Her marriage, for one, was on the rocks. ?We tried to make it work but failed,? she recalls.
Just a few months ago, before leaving for her June-July speaking tour, she and Russell signed a divorce document following the Muslim family laws under which they were married.
Today, Sarah has learned not to rake up the traumas in her life with every setback. She has moved on. The pain on her back has also subsided.
?When I?m stressed, I just get a headache now,? she says and breaks into a laugh.
Counseling, she says, has helped her be a better mom. ?I have learned to respect my children?s wants and not be so controlling and short-tempered.?
Her spiritual conversion, she says, has given purpose to her life. ?Dati, anong ipagmamalaki ko? Na inabuso ako, na nakapatay ako ng tao (Before, what could I be proud of? That I was abused and I murdered someone)??
Now when she retells her story before audiences, she says she feels she is fulfilling a higher purpose. ?For me, it?s no longer about what happened to me in the past. Now, I share my experiences to testify to God?s grace? and to bring others hope for the future.?
Paying it forward
The idea of a foundation that will include a shelter for returning OFWs who suffered abuse took shape in 2007.
She says the father of a girl working in the Middle East had called her, seeking her help. The girl, also from Sultan Kudarat, had complained that her employer had abused her for five days. She fell from the third floor of an apartment building and escaped.
Sarah says she tried calling Philippine officials in Dubai but failed to talk to whoever was in charge of the girl?s case. ?Pinagpasa-pasahan lang ako (They were giving me the run-around).?
One day, she heard the girl had made it back to Manila after she withdrew the case she had filed against her employer. Overseas welfare administrators simply gave her money to go home to Mindanao.
Sarah knew this was not enough. The girl?s feet were still swollen from the fall, she recalls. She helped the girl get proper medical treatment and file a case against the agency. She also solicited financial aid for the girl from her friends.
OFW to OFW
Sarah envisions a shelter staffed by former OFWs trained in counseling. ?Iba kasi yung OFW to OFW. Nagkakaintindihan kami (It?s different when one OFW talks to another. We understand each other).?
Recently, during a trip to Malaysia, the Philippine ambassador there asked her to share her stories with Filipinos who had been jailed for various offenses. There was an instant connection between her and the detainees, she says. ?Up to now, they text me, ?Ate Sarah, I?m back? or ?I?ve been released.??
Would she consider returning to the Middle East?
?You know, I am praying that I be given a chance to go back. There are so many of our compatriots there who need words of encouragement, words of hope.?