In HIV-positive OFW MSMs’ ordeal, family is refuge



It was all white. Was it?

Mark finds himself, in a white painted and glass surrounded room. Sitting. Waiting…

A Filipina nurse entered the room, and sat in front of him. Mark held on the table. Stuttering. Chilling…

The news that Mark contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) got into his nerves —and filled up his mind. Everything went black.

He slammed on the table, stood up and looked around. The reflections in the mirrors seemingly devouring every inch of him —of the thought that he is infected with the virus — each reflection taunting.

(Photo by Mia Rosienna Mallari / The Filipino Connection)

(Photo by Mia Rosienna Mallari / The Filipino Connection)

He wanted to rage. Destroy everything in his sight: the tables, the chairs, the mirrors! Like how the news got into his system, Mark filled the quarantine room with shouts and loud cries.

Everything went into a roller coaster ride. Everything flash backed to him. Where did he get it?

Mark recalled everything: every single guy he had sex with, and every single night he spent trading his own flesh for dirhams. Every. Single. Memory.

He thought of his future and the family that he supports. But then, his mind crossed the words of his sister who resides with him in Dubai. “Sabi niya sa akin, mag-iingat ako, kasi nga maraming ganoong kaso at alam niyang may ganoong kalakaran,” Mark says, his eyes teary.

He was afraid of admitting his status to his sister —afraid that she would get angry at him. She didn’t.

Paano ko sasabihin sa family ko – sa sister ko na lalo – na positibo ako. Nakakahiya. Pero ‘yun pala… siya rin ang unang-unang tatanggap sa akin,” Mark said, heaving a sigh of relief.

Mark is among a small but growing number of males working abroad on temporary contracts who had contracted HIV. And in this new drama surrounding the decades-old overseas labor migration phenomenon, there’s a default action: family support.

* * *

It was on February 2012 when Mark, then a spa instructor for a lavish hotel in Dubai, was diagnosed with HIV.  Aside from his registered job, he worked on the side catering to men of different races. He knew the risks of having multiple partners, but he had always been confident that he wouldn’t contract the disease not until one night when he was abused in the same year.

Gumagamit talaga ako ng condom. Lahat, lahat yun. Nagkataon nga lang na nagkaroon ako ng customer na na-invite ako, maliban sa kanya, nagkaroon pa ng puwersahan. May dalawa pang dumating,” he said, with his hands clenching on the table.

He described the two unexpected patrons as young individuals of Middle Eastern decent, with enough strength to overpower his then 28-year-old self.

“Hindi ko na inisip kung may ginamit silang condom o wala. Kasi iniisip ko baka patayin nila ako. ‘Di ba uso iyon duon? Iniisip ko baka itapon ako kung saan-saan… sa disyerto.”

Mark was deported back to the Philippines a week after he was quarantined. He went home with the fear of his status. How would he tell it to his family, especially to his mother, who was really close to him?

Joey, a former waiter in Saudi Arabia’s palace suffered the same fate. It is almost a decade ago since he last set foot in the Middle East. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2005, then as a 26-year-old waiter in a palace. “I cried profusely,” he said in Filipino.

He recalled how he was brought to a hospital for no reason. “I asked for a proof that I was diagnosed, but they didn’t give me anything. Sinabi lang nila na maswerte ako at dito ako dinala ng amo ko, hindi sa kulungan.”

Joey was put first into a room filled with other foreigners who were also diagnosed with HIV. Then he was moved to another room where another Filipino worker positive with HIV was quarantined. That room, painted in all white and having two separate beds, was too spacious for two persons. Later on, the other quarantined HIV-positive overseas Filipino worker was moved to another room, right beside Joey’s.

The casual visits of his partner and Filipino friends kept Joey sane in the course of two weeks. They even planned to take Joey out from the hospital, but it was too late. Joey got deported, bringing only a piece of paper with a different name on it of Arab descent. He did not bring his personal belongings, leaving behind also his dreams of having a better life abroad.

Mahirap kasi.. di ba OFW kami tapos nandoon ka na, tapos malalaman mong positive ka sa HIV. Maiisip mong mapapauwi ka na, hindi ka na makakapagtrabaho. Nakakahinayang,” the 37-year-old native of Mindanao island said.

For two years, Joey found himself lost; he didn’t contact any relatives at all, even his mother. He couldn’t even face any people, afraid of disclosing his status.  It was only in 2007, in cooperation with a non-governmental organization, that his family knew about his status.

Naiyak ‘yung nanay ko. Hindi rin sila ganon nabigla, kasi may isa ring positibo sa amin- yung pinsan kong Japayuki [a tag for A Filipina working in Japan’s red-light district as an overseas performing artist].”

* * *

Mark and Joey were interviewees of researchers from the Action for Health Initiatives, Inc. (Achieve), an advocacy group dedicated to the welfare of OFWs with HIV. That study magnified the risks and vulnerabilities of OFWs who are engaging in male-to-male (MSM) sexual contact to HIV.

Of Achieve’s 43 interviewees, 21 were HIV positive and 16 declared that they were deported because of the disease. Majority of those who were deported were employed in the United Arab Emiratres, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

MSM sexual contact is the norm in the region, the 37-year-old former OFW Joey stated. He was also aware of that fact but Joey brushed off the thought: “Hindi ko nalang iniisip.”

Their statements supported the findings of Achieve’s study that the person’s level of knowledge on HIV “does not necessarily directly correlate with prevention of HIV infection.”

Like Mark, there were other respondents who recounted painful experiences during MSM but did not voice out that they considered it as sexual abuse.

OFWs, says Achieve Executive Director Mara Quesada-Bondat, are “well aware” of the laws against homosexuality and sodomy, especially in the Middle East. But these workers never reported such cases to the host country’s authorities, for fear of being arrested, or being deported, or being meted capital punishment.

Only one out of the five research participants who shared their painful anal sex experiences, admitted that he got infected by HIV through sexual abuse.

Despite the evident consequences of their on-the-side trade, both Mark and Joey pursued their engagements while they were overseas; Mark started a month after he began working and Joey, two days after arriving, wherein he got a free cab ride in return.

* * *

The spa house, which situated in the ground floor a hotel, houses 72 workers of different races. Mark’s employers required him to work at least 14 hours a day. But he still managed to squeeze in time to accept customers regularly.

Minsan linggo-linggo, kung pwede nga araw-araw. Minsan hindi namin inaayawan, pero minsan dala na rin ng sobrang pagod kasi matagal ang oras ng trabaho namin,” Mark recalls. “Kasi sa hipo nga lang isangdaan na eh. AED100 (around P1,200.00).” Mark’s most expensive service summed up to AED 1,800 dirhams (PhP21,600).

Joey’s income in his on-the-side trade, doesn’t go at par with Mark’s; he receives SR50 up to SR300 per service (some PhP600 to PhP3,600). Owie’s highest income was SR500 riyals (PhP6,000), when he and his partner, had a threesome with a local.

Both men did not receive direct assistance from the government upon their deportation, arriving back in the country empty-handed. They were counseled and briefed before leaving the foreign lands in which they worked for, but no follow-up was engaged upon their arrival. The NGOs then came into the picture.

Pinoy Plus Association, Inc. or Pinoy Plus (a nonprofit made up of people living with HIV) welcomed and supported Mark and Joey when they got back in the back country. Counseling and peer support were then provided unto them. In the years 2008 and 2012 respectively, Joey and Mark, met and became involved with Achieve.

* * *

The 14-year-old Achieve, situated in Timog Avenue, is housed in a common three-storey Filipino apartment surrounded with plants. Upon entering the premises, a poster filled with condoms in different sizes and color —titled “Safety can be fun” welcomes visitors.

This place is refuge for Mark and Joey.

But Mark is now living with his mom, enjoying every moment they can cherish: watching TV together, going out to the mall during free time and, just the thought of being together. He just wants to live a “simple life with his mother”.

Joey, for his part, stays alone in apartment in Alabang, Muntinlupa City. While he’s distant from his family, he is now accepted and in good terms with parents and siblings. He still wants “to work again” abroad, but laws of other countries hinder him from doing so. Joey currently works as site inspection officer in a social hygiene clinic in Caloocan City.

The two former OFWs are currently working hand-in-hand with HIV/AIDS treatment hubs, where they get their monthly medication and receive other health-related programs. Both men are advocates of the welfare and state of HIV-positive people locally and overseas.

But with family members behind Mark and Joey, years after the depression and isolation they felt as overseas Filipino workers and as returnees bringing with them the human immunodeficiency virus, it was all acceptance and positivity from thereon.



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