Fedelina: A Stolen Life — and how it’s reclaimed

Text by Jandale D. Jimenez

At 82, Fedelina only had a few good stories to tell. 

For most of her life, she had learned to become inconspicuous from others. For so long, the world had barely known her little ‘prison cell’ abroad. She lived a life isolated from her family, friends or anyone who even remembers her name. Shackled in servitude and abuse, she was limited and barred from living a free life.

The ABS-CBN documentary Fedelina: A Stolen Life is a poignant narrative of Fedelina Lugasan’s lifelong struggle behind the invisible bars of modern-day slavery, abuse, fear and oppression. The documentary intricately follows the liberation of Fedelina and how she has become a face of those whose wings are clipped by domestic servitude. 

Nanay Fedelina, a victim of human trafficking, was illegally brought to the United States by her employer in the 1970s. For most of her life, she was held captive while being mistreated and abused  by her Filipino employers whom she has served for four generations.

After 65 long years, she finally attained her freedom through the help of different organizations and individuals. She was able to forgive her captors despite their inhumanity. But in June 2020, Fedelina died of COVID-19. She may be gone but her story remains to be told.

ABS-CBN Docu Central, together with its North America Bureau and Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), strived to piece a clearer story of Fedelina through flashbacks of her younger years in Samar before she was recruited  as a domestic helper in Manila. Over a decade of working in Manila, she was illegally brought to the US by her employer.

“No’ng kinuha ako, hindi ako tinanong. Hindi ako hinanapan ng papel kaya nagtaka ako bakit yung mga nagpupunta dito hinahanapan ng papel,” Fedelina recalled, remembering how she was illegally brought to the US to work using only a tourist visa. 

“Hindi ako kumibo. Hindi ako nagtanong. Pagbaba namin dito ng madaling araw, ang sabi sa akin, Amerika na ito,” she added

Little did she know that everything would change from thereon, far from the promise of a good life abroad.

After three years of unpaid work,  she lost all means of communication with the family she left in the Philippines. Her employer had confiscated her passport, birth certificate and other essential documents. She would occasionally receive threats saying she would be jailed if she tried to escape. Afraid, she remained subservient to the family she eventually considered and called her own.

More than the chronicle of Fedelina’s enslavement and her journey to freedom, Jet Leyco, the director of the documentary, also highlighted the trauma that usually tails the survivors of human trafficking, slavery, and abuse. 

At the beginning of the documentary, Fedelina’s face twitches in stark confusion as she opens a bank account with the assistance of a Filipino social worker. Looking wary, the memories continue to haunt her.

Pwede na akong makapaglakwatsa?” Fedelina asked. Her face shone with a smile she so sparsely wore upon hearing her social worker reply a reassuring yes.

When we think of slavery, we revisit a dark, grim history of torture, exploitation, and incessant toiling under the subjugation of those who have the means and power to coerce. It is a persisting divide among classes, between the powerful and the oppressed. This makes us relish the illusion of liberty we have today, believing that days of slavery were gone for good. 

The documentary refutes this belief and introduces a new kind of slavery happening behind closed doors. As seen in Fedelina’s case, human trafficking and modern-day slavery continue to curb the liberty of some. Inherently, freedom should neither be demanded nor negotiated for as it should be firmly ingrained as one of our most basic rights. However, many still fall victim to abuse due to the desperate need to make a living. 

As the documentary progresses and unfolds much of Fedelina’s ordeal, a mixed bag of emotions pinches through our feelings: sadness, sympathy, hope, happiness, and anger. More prominently, however, there is a high degree of pain felt during the entire 53 minutes.

Fedelina: A Stolen Lifeis not only a narrative of good winning over evil. It is also about the laborious serving of justice against the abuse and inhumanity of the perpetrators who held their victims at gunpoint,stirring fear so bad that they couldn’t speak. 

Yet victims like Fedelina are not waging this war alone. There are organizations willing to offer refuge to the distressed and lend a hand in holding their abusers accountable. For Fedelina, together with the PWC, winning her case came along her forgiveness for Benedicta Cox, her present employer, who sent her through hell every waking day that dawned in and set out.

Kaya kayo lumaban kayo. Huwag kayong magpaapi sa mga pinagtatrabahuhan niyo. Kailangan mag-ingat kayo. Huwag kayong magpaapi sa mga taong nang aapi,” a more confident Fedelina said in her video message during the 2019 Filipino-American Anti-Human Trafficking Summit. 

The documentary also shows us that it is never too late in life to inspire and move others to liberation, much like what Fedelina did in the latter time of her life. 

Though she is gone, Nanay Fedelina’s story continues to remind us all that no one can better free us from the bondage of oppression and reclaim the quality of life that was lost from slavery than ourselves.

If you suspect that you or anyone you know is a victim of human trafficking, contact and report such cases using these hotlines: Philippine National Police Actionline, 1343 (Within Metro Manila) or (02) 1343 (Outside Metro Manila). For overseas, consult the Philippine Embassy within your region. 

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