•Worked for12 years without pay
By CHIOMA IGBOKWE – SUN
• Photo: The Sun Publishing
Just like many other Nigerians, a 73-years-old widow, Mrs Marthina Okeke, grabbed the offer of travelling to the United States of America (USA) to serve as a nanny. That hope of greener pasture was quashed when she discovered that she was lured to serve as a slave for a Nigerian family there.
For 12 years, she served her slave masters not knowing that not even a dime was remitted to her family in the village, Arondizuogu, Imo State. She escaped and was rescued by a non-governmental organization, Africans In America (AIA). AIA is a non-profit organization raising awareness on issues affecting African immigrants in the U. S.
Stranded but determined to return home to spend the rest of her life with her family, Okeke is soliciting assistance from Imo State Government.
Journey to the unknown
Okeke’s journey into modern-day slavery /human trafficking in New York City started in 1988 when a prominent and wealthy local chief in her village, Arondizuogu, Imo State allegedly proposed getting her a visa to go to America and do baby-sitting job for his relatives for a fee of $300 a month.
The jobless, uneducated and poor widow struggling with two of her own little children could not resist the offer. The chief allegedly prepared genuine and fake documents with which Okeke secured the visa.
To further convince her, the relative of the chief allegedly arrived from New York and told Okeke that she was to care for her four children and her wages would be $300 a month. She also promised her that she was going to ensure that befitting structure is erected in her compound and sponsor the education of two of her children. Okeke could not resist the offer and travelled to US, leaving her two kids at the care of relations.
But on arrival in New York in 1988, Okeke discovered that she was to baby-sit for eight children rather than the four agreed before she left Nigeria. She was not bothered considering the mouth-watering offer made to her. She was made to double as a housekeeper and nanny for 12 years. Okeke sought to know if all the promises were kept and her masters assured her that they had almost completed the house. They added that her children where in good school.
She, however, suspected foul play when all efforts to make a call home failed. She was denied access to her family but was assured that all letters were delivered. She requested that her passport be handed over to her but was told that it had expired. It was at that point that it dawned on her that she has been deceived.
Her ‘captors’ allegedly seized her documents.
While she was made to clean the four -bedroom apartment, cook and generally serve her traffickers, Okeke hatched her plans of escape. She eventually left her captors in 2000, sought refuge in a local church before ending up in the household of another immigrant family from her village, Arondizuogu, also living in New York.
Okeke survived by picking empty cans and bottles from the garbage on the streets as well as babysitting for other Nigerian immigrants in New York and getting paid peanuts.
Okeke’s story is well known within the Nigerian community, especially the Arondizuogu community in New York, New Jersey and other parts of the U.S but no one stepped in to help her due to fear of the Nigerian family that enslaved her.
Help at last
In July 2005, while in search of adjustment of her immigration status, a female freelance journalist led Okeke to Africans In America, Inc (AIA).
Bonaventure Ezekwenna, CEO, AIA, explained that it was through advocacy and referral to pro-bono legal services groups that the Department of Health and Human Services certified her as a victim of trafficking and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted her a T visa in August 2006.
He said: “Certified victims granted T visa enjoy the protection of US law and that removes fear of deportation. Certified victims granted T visa also get some social benefits, and freedom to seek monetary compensation from their traffickers and captors. It was with the status that she was able to get a job of carrying garbages. Recently, US Immigration Services granted her Permanent Resident status giving her the privilege to travel out and back to United States. Her main concern is to travel and meet her family left in the village. We are pleading with well meaning Nigerians, especially the governor- elect of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, who we learnt is a human rights activist, to help Mrs. Okeke return and settle down in her village in Arondizuogu.”
Now that her immigration status has been fully adjusted, Okeke wants to return to her home village for the first time since 1988. This is in preparation to finally return home to settle. She has no money to make this possible. Therefore, she is asking for public support.
In a letter to Okorocha, Okeke sought his assistance so that she can go back home and settle down. She can be reached through Africans In America, Inc. (Marthina Okeke Travel Support). Tel: 1-718-328-9170, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or 08094416570.
We want our mother back
Describing their plight all these years as agonizing, his first son, Obiora Okeke, explained that when their mother failed to keep her promise of getting across to them, they assumed that she was dead.
He said: “ When I heard that she is alive, I couldn’t believe it till I saw her photograph and heard her voice three years ago. I am struggling to make a living and provide for my brother who is dependent on me. We were at the mercy of relatives who did their best in feeding them. This explains why we had no opportunity to further our education after secondary school.”
He pleaded with wewll-meaning Nigerians at home and abroad to assist his mother return home and start a new life.