Family of slain OFW in Kuwait had no idea she was maltreated

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 10) — Ever since Joanna Daniela Demafelis flew to Kuwait in 2014 to work as an overseas Filipino worker, her family got to talk to her only thrice a year.

Their rare phone calls lasted only a few minutes, Joyce Demafelis, Joanna's sister, told CNN Philippines on Saturday.

When asked if Joanna ever mentioned being mistreated by her employer, Demafelis said she never did.

"Sabi ko kung may nagyayari ba diyan sa iyo kamusta kalagayan mo. Sabi niya okay lang naman daw siya. Kasi nagwoworry kami ni Papa sa probinsya tsaka ni Mama kasi marami 'yung nagyayari sa Kuwait," she said.

[Translation: "I asked, 'what's happening to you there, how are you?' She said she was okay. My parents and I worry about her because of bad news in Kuwait."]

Demafelis, however, noticed something strange whenever she talked to her older sister. "'Yung sakin parang binabantayn siya ng amo niya. Eh sa isang taon tatlong buwan lang siya nagpaparamdan sa amin at tsaka talong buwan nagpapadala," she said.

[Translation: "For me, I think she was being watched by her employer. In one year, she only calls us thrice and she only sends money thrice."]

Their last phone call was in 2016, when Joanna bared plans of coming home in 2018. She never did.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III on Thursday confirmed Joanna's death. She was 29. Her body was found stored in a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait, where it may have been kept for over a year. Authorities said it had torture marks and there were indications she was strangled to death.

READ: Body of Filipina found in freezer in Kuwait

Initial investigation showed Joanna's Lebanese employer, Nader Essam Assaf, is wanted for cases related to falsified cheques.

Speaking to CNN Philippines Sunday, Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa said Joanna's remains are still with the forensics section of Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior.

The autopsy has not yet happened, Villa said, as Joanna's body "remains very much frozen."

Villa, however, said he would return to the criminal evidence department to see if any progress had been done regarding the autopsy.

"Kung tapos na 'yung autopsy ay hihilingin ko na mapauwi ang bangkay sa lalong madaling panahon," he said.

[Translation:If the autopsy has been finished, I will ask that the remains be sent home immediately.]

He added he was hopeful Joanna's body would be home within the week.

Interpol and Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior has also been tipped off regarding Joanna's Lebanese employer.

Joanna's death prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to order the repatriation of OFWs who want to come home from Kuwait. He said this should be done in 72 hours.

READ: Duterte wants distressed OFWs home from Kuwait in 72 hours

Duterte, who weeks ago had asked Kuwaitis to treat Filipino workers with "dignity," decried Demafelis' fate, along with that of other Filipino workers mistreated abroad.

"The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere and everywhere," he said.

Kuwait is a top destination for Filipino workers. The latest data from Philippine Overseas Employment Administration said there are some 240,000 Filipinos in the country as of 2016.

Bello, meanwhile, urged the Kuwaiti government to sign a Memorandum of Understanding which provides additional protection for Filipino workers in that country. The document has been pending for the last three years.

The Department of Labor and Employment in January implemented the immediate suspension of the deployment of OFWs to Kuwait as authorities probe the death of seven other OFWs there.

READ: DOLE suspends OFW deployment to Kuwait

For now, all the Demafelis family can do is cry for justice and wait for Joanna's remains.

"Sabi ng OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) tatawag na lang daw sila sa tiyuhin ko kapag iano (iuwi) na 'yung bangkay ng ate ko," Demafelis said.

[Translation: "OWWA said they will just call our uncle when my ate's remains will be flown home."]

This story was updated on February 11 to include statements from Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa.