My first introduction to the Good Shepherd Sisters was in 1981, in Kuala Lumpur at the office of Messrs Chooi & Co where I was working. My dealings with the Good Shepherd Sisters then were strictly professional. To me, they were “the nuns” who came for free legal advice.
When I moved to Sabah in the late 1980s, I encountered the Good Shepherd Sisters again. This time, I was seeking their help. I brought women and children to the Good Shepherd shelter. From there, “the nuns” got to know me, I got to know them better. Since then, I know each one by name, and our relationship developed.
What sustained me in this relationship is the kind of work and issues that the Good Shepherd Sisters do and what they stand for. The friendly and supportive environment also played a major part. The Good Shepherd community (meaning both the religious and lay) is always available to discuss and support each other, and are also fun to be with.
In 2007, when the Sisters started talking about human trafficking, I was curious and excited although I knew very little about the issue. I attended a talk on Human Trafficking by Sr Maria Dipal. Her talk not only shocked and stirred me, but convinced me to join her in educating the youths in schools on this issue. I was only to assist her, she promised. But there was an occasion when she was not available and I had to conduct the session on my own. That was when I was “forced” to learn to make posters, prepare PowerPoint presentations and embark on a recruitment drive to get friends to help me do all that, plus conduct part of the session.
Another experience I recall is the time when I sat down with Sr Angelina Peter and Sr Kelly Ngai, with five women in the Convent. I gained insights into lives that I would otherwise not have known. For the first time, I was meeting women who were deceived into coming to Sabah and then exploited upon their arrival. After listening to their stories and experiences, my perception of the women reported in the daily newspapers (particularly those rounded up during raids) changed radically.
Before this encounter, I used to sympathise with them, thinking, “What a pity, they have no choice but to go into prostitution. It’s just unfortunate that they are caught, while the pimps go scot-free.”
But now I see a real woman. She has a name. She has parents, a husband and children at home, relying on the money that she is sending home. I understand now - her anxiety while on the boat ride after discovering that she has been given a false passport by the agent; her fears and uncertainty of what will happen if she was arrested while in transit in a strange country; even if she arrived safely, the likelihood of her being locked up in a house and told not to peep out of the window in case someone spots her; the trauma of discovering upon arrival that she has been sold and prostituted; her physical confinement, and being guarded round the clock. I can hear her cries of despair and regret. I can feel her frustration and anger when she finds out that the case against the traffickers and pimps has been postponed indefinitely at her expense as she cannot go home until the case is over. I can see the confusion and disbelief in her eyes when she is advised against going out because it is not safe for her, while the traffickers and pimps are out on bail, enjoying their freedom!
Through this privileged experience, I got to meet many remarkable people.
The late Finardo Cabilao, social worker and attaché at the Philippines Embassy whose commitment was unwavering. He was there whenever help was needed, and never missed a day in court if he was in town, just to ensure that everything was in order. The respect he accorded the women, and the kindness he demonstrated is worthy of emulation. Although I could not understand their conversation, there was never a harsh word or sign of impatience on his part, even when the women were venting their anger and frustration at him, after being told that the case had been postponed and that they could not go home.
The staff members at the shelter were often tested to the limits by the women (on bad days) but they proved, and showed, their love and compassion.
Sr Angelina was of course the beacon in the storm. She was my strength and my guide. I remember being nervous and anxious while accompanying five girls to court and having to face the pimps and traffickers, but she was there with her smile and exuded calmness. I thought, “Isn’t she a wee bit scared at all?”
On the last day of their stay, this group of women cooked a scrumptious dinner to appreciate those who had journeyed with them. They wrote poems and sang songs that inevitably brought tears to everyone’s eyes. The Good Shepherd community gave them back their dignity and confidence, and taught them to trust again. They responded with gratitude and gentleness which were concealed from public view, until that night before their departure for home.