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An accidental dedication to captive souls

 HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : A chance citing of an announcement for a suicide counselling  seminar introduced Sally Napano to an apostolate in Hong Kong that she has worked at faithfully for the past six years.

“In late 2008, I attended a seminar run by a Filipino woman catechist on suicide counselling. I was very interested in this, because a number of close and distant family members, as well as neighbours in my village had committed suicide and I often wondered if I should have seen the signs and
been of greater help,” she told Mabuhay.

At the seminar, Napano met the wife of a Filipino who was in prison in Hong Kong, who happened to be the friend of her cousin. She explains simply that she went to see him and he gave her the names of two others who would like a visit.

She said that since then, her commitment has mushroomed and she now visits four prisons on Sundays on a rote basis.

However, she quickly learned that prison visitation does not end when the grill door slams shut behind you, as people ask for help in sending messages to their families, as well as doing simple shopping for them.

“I am in frequent contact with the families of seven prisoners,” she explained. “They are from The Philippines, Benin, Surinam and Colombia. I help to get messages into the prison too, as well as buying batteries, soap, magazines, bibles and other items they ask for and need.”

Napano was born on Guimaras island in Iloilo on 14 September 1961, the fifth among eight children—five boys and three girls.

“My father was a rice farmer and my mom a busy housewife! Although our church was far
away from the village, we always went and I can remember dreaming about being a sister. I even played
at dressing up in a veil,” she admitted.

But like many a Filipino, financial difficulties in the family beckoned her overseas with the lure of better wages and the possibility of improving both her life and that of her family.

“Well, firstly I went to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait in the Middle East. I worked there for a local mother and daughter family, who were very considerate towards me, not demanding that I dress in a full Arab robe and veil—even allowing me to wear trousers at home—unlike most other domestic workers,” she related.

But then the Gulf War threatened and the Philippine government urged us all to evacuate, even paying part of the fare from Kuwait back to Manila. But Napano described the journey as a nightmare.

“It was a nightmare, going through Jordan and Iraq, because the normal Saudi Arabia and Dubai routes were closed,” she explained. “In Jordan we had to sleep on the street for a week and in Iraq the government found an empty warehouse for us, where we were fed tinned sardines, cucumber and lettuce, every day, every meal, for a whole week! I can never eat sardines again.”

However, Napano survived the trip and came to Hong Kong in 1991, even making a happy landing.

“My first employers were a British couple for whom I worked for eight happy years. I thought I had enough money by then and went back home, planning to stay there for good. But within two years, and with big hospitalisation costs for my sickly mother growing all the time, I realised I would have to return,” she related.

“So I came back in the year 2000, first to a Chinese and then an Australian family. I am now with a Korean couple with young children,” she said.

Like most other domestic workers in the city, Sunday is her day off, but with her commitment to visit the four prisons every month, nearly all her free time gets eaten up.

She says that the visitation can also be stressful, as security procedures take quite a bit of time and the prisons are in out-of-the-way places.

“Then when I eventually do see a prisoner, it is behind glass and we are using phones. It is often hard to hear and understand them and especially difficult when their English is poor,” Napano explained.

But she says there is always something to keep her going. “I have one Filipino kuya (like older brother) in prison who is paralysed. At the beginning, he was silent and sullen, just saying bahala na (There is nothing I can do). I used to cry on my side of the glass, trying to encourage him,” she said.

However, she says that there is always hope that people can pick up with the right support. Napano organised a place to stay for his wife when she visited Hong Kong two years ago and then, when she came again last year, allowed her to stay in her room.

“Of course with my employer’s permission,” she is quick to explain. “And slowly, slowly he is now more positive,” she went on, praising his wife’s love and his children’s good education.

“He even joked with me last week, asking me not to cut my hair. I told him that even though the weather is so hot, I will sacrifice cutting my hair, as a prayer for him,” she said.

Napano says that she finds strength in her Sunday Mass. “I often cry inwardly during the sermon. I feel it is as if the Lord is speaking to me directly. I promised God that once all my family debts and obligations are cleared, I will live and use any disposable income for him,” she related.

She believes strongly in the power of prayer too.

“I have seen miracles even among my employers’ families when I pray for them. There was the total healing of my Korean grandfather from a stomach complaint,” she noted.

Nevertheless, she still wonders if she is really helping the prisoners or not. “I am not an expert in the bible, but often it is their words to me that inspire me, and keep me going,” she reflected.

But most of all, Napano says that she would like to encourage all domestic workers to use their gifts, especially the gifts of listening and healing that she believes God has given to Filipino women, for our brothers and sisters in jail.

“Sometimes we waste our day off sitting around the streets and parks, when we could give just an hour or two to someone worse off than ourselves. Jesus did say, ‘I was in jail, and you came to see me…’” she commented.

Then she stresses that good things happen too. “I am going home for 10 days, arriving on my birthday and I will spend it organising praise and worship for the people in my village,” she said, adding that they are simple, peaceful people, who work hard, but still cannot find money for the bus fare to church.

“I will encourage them. I may finish my contract in Hong Kong next year, so I need to look over my little house and land there.

“I miss my parents not being alive, but God is our shepherd always,” she said, as she contemplated her future.

‘He even joked with
me last week, asking me not to cut my hair.
I told him that even though the weather
is so hot, I will sacrifice cutting my hair,
as a prayer for him,’
she said


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