Fighting to be free: Nigerian woman to speak on human trafficking in Worthington
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on human trafficking.
WORTHINGTON — Many victims of human trafficking have difficulty putting a label on their plight. They often blame themselves for their treatment, and they fear what might happen if they muster up the courage to escape.
Being a victim of human trafficking is especially scary for foreign-born residents.
When Nigerian journalist Bukola Oriola came to the United States in 2005 to cover a United Nations general assembly in New York City, she also meet her Nigerian-born husband for the first time, face to face. He was living in the Twin Cities, and while they’d been united in a traditional marriage, the only communication between them was over the phone. They were introduced by a mutual friend.
“His family met my family in Nigeria,” she said, explaining that a traditional marriage is like a marriage between families. “It wasn’t like a stranger-stranger thing. It’s almost like the family recommending someone.
“In Nigeria, there are three forms of marriage — traditional, Christian and Muslim,” she added. “The traditional is the oldest form of marriage — it’s a marriage where the families agree.”
When Oriola’s two-week assignment wrapped up in New York, she flew to Minnesota to get to know her husband. Since she’d only been given a work visa for two months, they had six weeks to get to know each other.
Settling in a home in Ramsey, a suburb of the Twin Cities, Oriola said when it came time to return to Nigeria, her husband and his family begged her to stay.
The process then began to change her residency status, and Oriola said things were going smoothly at first. Her husband purchased her a desk and a computer so she could continue writing and submitting stories to the newspaper back in Nigeria.
Then, she learned she was pregnant and her husband’s attitude changed. It was like she was suddenly sheltered from the outside world. He’d even stopped the process of changing her visa.
America — known as the land of the free — became a trap for Oriola. She was a prisoner in her own home. Unable to drive, to venture into her neighborhood or visit the grocery store, she was controlled by the man she thought loved her.
He neglected her needs for simple things — necessary things — like food and clothing.
“I didn’t have a winter jacket. I didn’t have the right shoes for winter,” she said. “I was pregnant and getting tired.”
Oriola said when her husband did take her to the store, it was always just before the business closed.
“I would grab whatever my hands would hold and go home, and when we got home, I found the clothes were either too small or too big for me,” she recalled. “I was hungry all of the time.”
Oriola said there were times she didn’t get out of the house for three weeks. She peeked out the window and watched life — watched freedom — all around her.
If there was something to look forward to, it was Sunday mornings when she was allowed to accompany her husband to church. While there, she sought out African-American women and spread the word that she could do hair braiding, developing a clientele willing to come into her home.
“When he found out I was good with a skill, he decided to exploit me,” Oriola shared. “When I braided hair, he took the money.”
It wasn’t long before a customer realized what was happening, even though Oriola didn’t talk about her treatment. The client suggested Oriola ask to be paid half in cash and half by check, and then helped her set up a bank account. It was a way for Oriola to have her own money for necessities.
The system worked for a time — Oriola signed checks with her account number and mailed them to the bank without her husband finding out. He knew, however, that there should have been more money coming in and continually searched the house for a hidden stash.
“He said I had a free house, free food, free TV in America — I didn’t need money,” Oriola said.
Eventually, he found a way to make her pay, requiring her to rent space for her hair-braiding business.
“I had to pay so much money each month .... It was a lot of money for me to pay,” she said. At the end of the day, her husband took everything she had.
“I would stand on my feet for up to 14 hours, and when I was finished there was little or no food to eat,” she added. “Sometimes I would beg my customers for food.”
After her son was born, Oriola said her husband did his best to neglect the baby’s presence. He even refused to buy clothing for the infant.
“One of my customers took me to Wal-Mart to buy clothes for the baby at midnight,” Oriola said. Since her husband worked the night shift, he didn’t know she’d gotten out of the house. And, since he ignored the baby, he never said anything about the infant’s clothing.
Having the baby, however, changed Oriola. She realized she could no longer stand to be a prisoner in her own home. After two years, she needed out.
“I felt like I was living and breathing, but I was imprisoned,” she said. “We weren’t in a physical jail, but that doesn’t mean someone is free.”
When Oriola’s son was 11 months old, she broke free from her husband’s control with the help of a public health nurse. The two were taken to the Alexandra House, a battered women’s shelter, in Anoka County.
It took months of therapy before she could explain the treatment she’d endured at the hands of her husband. Even then, she’d not heard the term “human trafficking.” That came later, when she was introduced to staff at the Civil Society, a St. Paul-based organization that helps victims of labor and sex trafficking.
While continuing her therapy, the Alexandra House staff helped her file an order for protection against her husband, and assisted her with immigration paperwork.
Today, Oriola said her son is the one consolation that came from her years of being trafficked by her husband.
“I use him a lot as my life support,” Oriola said of the boy, now a first-grader.
With the love of her son and the aid of therapy, Oriola decided to take her life experience and make it public. In 2009, she published her first book, “Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim,” and has booked numerous speaking engagements to share her story.
Oriola will be in Worthington on Wednesday, sharing her story of human trafficking at Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s Culture Corner. The program is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the college commons.
While Oriola still does hair braiding to bring in income, she is also in the process of starting her own non-profit organization to help victims of human trafficking.
“I want to be able to reach out to victims and empower survivors,” she said. “For survivors, there are big challenges you face. I have lived it — I know some of those challenges. I want to be able to help them.”
During her presentation in Worthington, Oriola will have copies of her book available for sale. She also sells bracelets as a way to educate the public about human trafficking.
Her advice to others is to be aware of their surroundings — look after their neighbors.
“Your neighbor can be a victim of human trafficking,” she said. “They won’t talk until they trust you. Show love and be trustworthy.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.