On the Friday evening before Good Friday, I visited the Jesus is Lord church in Daly City to hear Sarah Balabagan, a Muslim convert to Christianity, describe her ordeal in the Middle East, a traumatic experience that was made into an award-winning film in 1997.
Sarah grew up in a poor Muslim family in the town of Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao province. She had thirteen brothers and sisters but they were so poor, she said, when one of them got sick, they would just watch helplessly by as the brother or sister got sicker and eventually died. Her parents had no money for medical care so only six of her siblings survived early childhood diseases.
Sarah realized early on that education was her ticket out of the incredible poverty she was born into so she worked as a maid for relatives just to be able to go to school in return for a wage. But that only got her through fifth grade. At the age of 14, she decided to seek employment abroad.
A recruiter secured a job for her by listing her age as 28 (double her actual age) which Sarah learned only when she had already boarded the plane for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Assigned by contract to work for a 67-year old widower with four sons, Sarah was apprehensive about living with 5 men but she comforted herself with the thought that, being a Muslim, they would respect her.
But they did not and Sarah was continuously subjected to sexual harassment. The young sons would regularly order her to bring towels to them after they stepped out of the shower naked. Sarah would just close her eyes and resist their sexual advances.
On July 19, 1994, barely a month after she started working, her employer, Mohamed Abdullah Baloushi, entered her room at night and pressed a knife at her throat. He would stab her if she refused sex, he threatened. Sarah refused and Mohammed stabbed her, not enough to kill her but enough to allow him to rape her. In the course of the rape, however, Mohamed let go off his knife which Sarah then picked up and used to kill him.
Sarah was jailed without bail and in June of 1995, was sentenced by a local court to seven years in prison for manslaughter and ordered her to pay the Baloushi's family $41,000 in diyah, for "blood money". The court also found that Sarah had been the victim of rape and awarded her compensation in damages.
But the state prosecution appealed and a retrial was ordered. The second court found no evidence of rape and sentenced her to die by firing squad in the desert.
An international outcry led by Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos led to a reduction of her sentence to one year and 100 lashes, plus payment of "blood money" to her employer's family, which was paid for by a Filipino-Chinese businessman.
The 100 lashes were to be administered to her on five consecutive days of 20 lashes a day. Sarah described the kind of wood that was used as one designed to inflict the maximum pain. She was whipped before an audience of family members and friends of Mohamed Baloushi. She did not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry so she bore the pain of the lashings quietly. But it took her 3 months before she could sleep on her back.
After serving almost two years in Al-Ain prison in Dubai, Sarah was deported back to the Philippines in 1996, arriving in Manila to a hero’s welcome. A Philippine movie studio made a 1997 film about her, “The Sarah Balabagan Story”, which starred Vina Morales and was a box-office hit.
What money she received for the film she sent to her family and used to go to school. She wanted to be a lawyer to represent her fellow overseas workers who needed legal assistance but she got pregnant, three times, and that affected her educational goals. She took computer classes and voice lessons where she learned that she could sing and sing very well. She started a career as a singer whose songs have resonated with overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as they often speak of the plight of the OFWs.
But fame can cause its own prison and Sarah got depressed with having to raise her three children, taking classes, and regularly sending money to her in Mindanao.
In the middle of her despair, she met a Christian singer named Dulce Amor who introduced Sarah to her pastor, Rev. Gasti Maribojoc. The minister told Sarah that the 100 lashes she received were also received by Jesus Christ, only 100 times more. After Sarah read the Bible and learned more about Jesus, she decided in 2003 to accept Jesus as her savior and to renounce her Muslim faith.
This “apostasy” – converting from Islam to Christianity – was especially difficult for her mother to accept as she believed the penalty for it is death. She didn’t speak to Sarah for six months and when she finally called, she told Sarah of her fear that Sarah’s lifeless body would end up in the Pasig River.
Sarah told her mother that she does not fear death because now she has found meaning in her life. She has dedicated herself to spreading the good word of Christ and if it is his will that she die, then so be it. She has also devoted her life to the cause of the OFWs and especially the domestic servants who have gone through what she went through.
When Sarah arrived in the Philippines in 1996, another domestic helper also returned on that same day, Elisa Salem, only she returned in a coffin, the victim of her Jordanian employer’s rape, one of 130 OFWs who died in 1996. In that year, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration received 14,000 complaints of abuse.
When Sarah sings of the pain and anguish of the OFWs in the Middle East, there is soulfulness to her music. When she sings of her love for Jesus, there is a joy in her heart and a fervent wish for everyone who has gone through hell to go to heaven.
Sarah will be speaking and singing at the Faith Worship Center at Serramonte Del Rey in Daly City on Sunday, April 12, at 10 AM. From April 17 until she returns to Manila on May 6, she will be in Los Angeles. She can be contacted at SarahB_light@yahoo.com.