Bukola Oriola has been counting down the days to Sept. 5, when she will begin a two-week tour of her native Nigeria, where she came of age before leaving a decade ago.
Oriola’s tour isn’t for pleasure; it’s to raise awareness about human trafficking and domestic violence — an ordeal that’s not unfamiliar to Oriola and to many in the immigrant communities in Minnesota.
“People need to know that being abroad does not necessarily mean greener pastures,” she explained. “It could be a potential trap to human trafficking or domestic abuse.”
Accompanied by her 8-year-old son and Minneapolis volunteer Brandt Schubbe, the “Bring The Story Back Home” tour will allow Oriola to employ her personal experience to explain the trials of immigrants falling victim to abusers in the United States, including people who their victims may consider spouses or relatives.
The phenomenon is particularly prevalent among undocumented immigrant communities, human rights advocates say, who are reluctant to report violence because they’re fearful of law enforcement and deportation.
“It’s difficult for members of the immigrant communities because of fear and because of lack of knowledge about trafficking laws and their limited understanding of English,” said Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society, a St. Paul-based advocate group that services victims of trafficking in the Twin Cities area.
Oriola, 38, added that African undocumented immigrants, when repatriated, face stigma in their home countries. In Nigeria, she said, those deported live in disgrace. “You’re going home with nothing,” she said.
For families and relatives in Africa, the expectation is high for their members in Europe and in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. They’re expected to be successful, Oriola explained, to earn degrees and enough money to be able to financially assist families. If they don’t return with those assets, she said, the community automatically labels them as failures.
While in Nigeria, Oriola wants to correct that misconception. She also wants to educate Nigerians about U.S. immigration laws, and the predicaments that undocumented immigrants face here.
But more importantly, Oriola wants to share her personal story: How she got to the United States; what it was like to be an undocumented immigrant; and what it felt like to be abused while fearful of authorities.
“I want to enlighten the Nigerian youth about all of those things,” added Oriola, who will present her story of abuse and survival at six public and private universities in Lagos. “The reason I’m going to these schools is that college students can quickly spread things to the younger group and older folks.”
Journey to Minnesota
Oriola, who was an education reporter and editor for the NewAge newspaper in Lagos, arrived in New York in 2005 to cover the United Nations General Assembly, and its 60th anniversary.
Before returning to Nigeria, the plan was to briefly see her husband, who lived in Minnesota. She married him at a traditional ceremony in Nigeria, though he hadn’t actually been at the wedding — and she had never met him in person. Even so, when she met him in Brooklyn Park for the first time, he persuaded her to stay with him.
At first Oriola said she was reluctant to accept her husband’s plea for several reasons, among them her commitment to a journalism career in Nigeria. She had entered the U.S. with an I Class visa, a temporary document for media representatives, and didn’t want to break a legal promise to return home. She wanted him to file an immigration petition for her so she could come to the U.S. legally as his wife.
In the end, however, she agreed to stay — letting her visa expire and hoping for a better tomorrow. “He and his family begged me to stay here,” she explained. “He said he could do the paperwork here, the same thing he could have done in Nigeria. He just needed to take me to the court and do the paperwork.”
She continued: “I said yes, not knowing that I was going to agree on an event that almost cost me my life.”
Facing domestic abuse
In the beginning of their marriage, she explained, “everything was rosy.” Her husband bought her a new computer. Oriola wrote frequently, filing stories about the United Nations — stories about politics affecting Nigeria and Nigerians. “My stories appeared on the front page of my newspaper in Nigeria, even though I was here,” she said. “I did that for months.”
Things began to change for Oriola after she and her husband moved out of their Brooklyn Park apartment to Ramsey. She didn’t have a driver’s license, she said, and getting out of the house became a struggle. “I got bored and frustrated because this was me working seven days a week to me just sitting in the house,” Oriola said.
Then the abuse began: “He constantly put me down, especially in front of people. He started using verbal abuse. Physical abuse. Emotional. Physiological. He wanted to just keep me down. And gradually, you know, myself-esteem began to go down.”
Moreover, she said, he started to control her. He didn’t let her go out with friends. And though she was a stay-at-home-mom, caring for their just-born child, Samuel, she said her husband refused to buy her the things she needed, including coats and boots to shelter her from the brutal Minnesota winter she was not familiar with.
But what was even more painful, Oriola explained, was what happened when she put her braiding skills to practice. Anytime she had a chance to go to the church, she gave out her contact information to some of the women parishioners, telling them that she could braid hair. In no time, she recalled, her fledgling business grew and she become known to many in the African community for her braiding skills. “My braiding jobs stood out and I kept getting clients through referrals,” she said.
But her earnings from the job went to her husband, she said. When she asked him for money, he responded by telling her: “You’re living in a free house, eating free food, watching free TV — and you’re asking for money?” When Oriola tried to stand up for herself, she said, her husband threatened to call the police and told her she would be deported.
This kind of mistreatment against immigrant women isn’t unique to Oriola. Millar, the executive director of Civil Society, who worked with Oriola on her immigration status, said that the foreign-born human trafficking cases are “much broader than you might think,” adding that her office handles about 100 such cases a year.
Oriola later decided to share her experience of abuse with a nurse, who told her to seek immediate support at Alexandra House in Blaine, which provides services to those facing domestic and sexual violence in Anoka County.
In 2007, after enduring two years in her marriage, the shelter rescued Oriola. She went on to receive a U visa, which protects undocumented victims of domestic abuse and other crimes, and eventually a Green Card, becoming a permanent resident of the United States. In 2017, she will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The “Bring The Story Back Home” tour isn’t the only project Oriola has embarked on to highlight domestic abuse among undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
In 2009, she began to speak to the pubic about her experience. She’s also written a book, “Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim,” detailing her trials as an undocumented foreign-born Minnesotan and as a survivor of abuse.
She also hosts the “Imprisoned Show,” aimed at immigrant communities worldwide to reinforce the awareness campaign and survivors a platform to engage the world and tell their stories.
In 2013, Oriola established The Enitan Story, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving victims and survivors of domestic violence and trafficking.
During the two-week tour, Oriola said she hopes to inspire people and prevent future fellow Nigerians from falling victim. “They can be stopped,” she said of the abuse facing undocumented immigrants. “They have to be stopped.”