Christmas this year will be a bit happier for Pastor Berlin Guerrero and his wife Mylene. For the first time in more than two years, the couple will celebrate the festive season together. But their happiness since Mylene’s arrival in Australia is tinged with sadness that their three adult children can’t join them.
“This is the first time that I have been away from the children in a very long time,” Mylene said. “Especially during the two years that Berlin has been living here (Australia), the children and I have always been together. This is the first time that one of us is not with the children.”
The history of the Philippines is fraught with political corruption and victimisation of those who challenge the injustices imposed by the ruling elite. Extra judicial killings, abductions and torture are common tactics employed to suppress political dissent.
According to Asia Human Rights Watch, these activities are widespread and “specifically target left-leaning political activists, human rights defenders (and) members of the clergy”.
From his early student days, Pastor Berlin – a pastor with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) – worked with those seeking to end oppression and give a voice to the voiceless.
In May 2007, while attending a memorial service for a friend assassinated one year earlier, Pastor Berlin was abducted by armed men. Mylene and the children could only look on in horror as he was handcuffed, hooded and forced into a van.
What followed was 15 months of torture and imprisonment before he was finally freed from trumped-up charges of sedition and murder. Although he was officially free, his safety could not be guaranteed. When he was offered sanctuary with the Uniting Church in Australia, he and his family made the difficult decision to live apart.
Speaking with Mylene is a reminder that for every act of oppression and persecution there are many victims. Here on a three-month tourist visa, she is still acclimatising to a new country and culture. Mylene has noticed the obvious differences, such as the housing and weather, but it is the things most of us take for granted that she is most grateful for.
“In the Philippines it is really different, you cannot walk down the street together without worrying what will happen. Here in Australia, I feel comfortable that no one will harm Berlin,” Mylene said.
Although Mylene said she believes she and the children are safe, she is realistic about the oppression they still face in the Philippines.
“It’s not only us but most of the people who are in an organisation who are fighting for justice and peace. All of them are under surveillance, those who are critical – the government is watching.”
For the past two years Pastor Berlin worked two days a week with the JIM unit while studying at CTM to become a UCA minister. Mylene is thrilled she is here to attend his valedictory dinner.
The hope for the Guerrero family is that it will not be long before they can live together in the safety of Australia. An application for a spouse visa for Mylene and the children is awaiting determination from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. In the meantime, they keep in touch via Facebook and phone, and now with the long-awaited visit in person.
“We have been deprived of living as a family for a very long time,” Mylene said.
“After the experience we have had with Berlin, being reunited as a family would really help us. We are always praying we will be safe.”
Before the Guerreros leave to enjoy lunch together, Mylene asks for the opportunity to speak personally to the readers of Crosslight.
“I want to express our gratitude to the Uniting Church for offering Berlin sanctuary. It’s meant so much, giving us a chance to live life away from danger, from worrying about his security and our security.
“We really thank the Uniting Church.”
The Guerrero family live in South Luzon, south of Manila, a region not affected by last month’s devastating typhoon.