“Please open, I’m Rebecca a widow whose two daughters have been turned into slaves in Mexico. You write a lot about human trafficking and I know you can help me.”
Those were the words spoken by 66-year-old Rebecca, whose daughters aim to reach the United States through Mexico, as she knocked on the door of my hotel room in the northeastern Nigeria city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram.
Rebecca was at the hotel reception enquiring about a friend of hers who lodged there when I arrived to request for a room. She heard me say my name to the receptionist and quickly recognized who I was. Minutes after I had settled into my room, Rebecca came knocking.
The troubled widow fell on my feet crying for help as I opened the door. Her twin daughters, known unofficially — and only to their mother and brothers — as Sarah and Miriam, are stuck in Mexico where they’ve been since arriving in July after a dangerous journey through South and North America aimed at ending in the United States. With the Trump administration making it almost impossible for migrants from far away countries to enter the U.S. through its southwest borders, Mexican s*x traffickers and their American cohorts are taking advantage of the desperation of young Africans to sexually exploit them, and Rebecca’s daughters, who arrived North America at the age of 17, are among their victims.
“Please write [a news article] about what is happening to my daughters in Mexico so that the world can come to their rescue,” a sobbing Rebecca, who has read one of my numerous accounts of human trafficking in West Africa’s conflict regions, said to me. “I’m calling their phones right now. You need to hear directly from them.”
Rebecca and I spent the next hour on the phone talking to her daughters in Mexico. Thereafter, we sat for nearly three hours talking about her family and how her daughters entered the situation they are currently in.
“It was never my decision for them to travel to America,” said Rebecca, who also has three sons who are much older than her twin daughters. “They took the decision on their own and refused to change their minds even when I persuaded them.”
Sarah and Miriam first nursed the idea of traveling to America when they saw a footage of U.S. President Donald Trump hosting two Chibok schoolgirls who escaped from Boko Haram in 2014 after the militants invaded their secondary school in northeastern Nigeria and seized more than 300 female students. The sisters learned that the two Chibok schoolgirls, who moved to the U.S. after the incident to further their education, had just graduated from the Canyonville Christian Academy in Oregon at the time they met Trump in July 2017 at the White House and wanted to follow in the footsteps of their compatriots in achieving the same kind of education.
“They kept insisting that the only way they can return to school is if they travel to America,” Rebecca said of her teenage daughters. “They didn’t want any mention of attending school in Maiduguri.”
Rebecca’s daughters suspended their education in their final year of secondary school after Boko Haram attacked their compound at the start of 2016. The militants beheaded their father during the attack and forced the girls to flee with their mother and brothers to Maiduguri where they first stayed in the Madinatu Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp for a few hours before moving to live with a relative in the heart of the city. It was at the home of their relative that they learned that a number of Chibok girls had moved to the U.S. to further their education and wanted to follow suit.
The sisters needed more than their mother’s help to reach their dreamland. They had contacted a travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, seeking help to travel to the U.S. but were told they didn’t qualify for an American visa as they had no genuine reason for travelling. The girls then sought help from a man known as Ahmed, a middle-aged Nigerian national who had approached them and unsuccessfully offered to take them to Europe for work during the few hours they stayed at the Madinatu IDP camp, a place notorious for child trafficking (the sisters were not interested in working at the time but wanted to focus on completing their secondary education).
Ahmed, who claimed to work for a travel network that has helped many Africans travel to America, suggested a different way of reaching the U.S. with the help of smugglers in both South and North America. But the girls couldn’t immediately afford the $5,000 fee he demanded from each of them for the trip so they had to wait for months until their relatives in Maiduguri sold their crops and livestock to add to the money their mother had raised from the sale of her expensive jewelry before starting their journey.
“My siblings and I have given away everything we’ve got to make sure my daughters travel abroad,” said Rebecca. “I don’t know what will happen to me if this whole America thing doesn’t work out well in the end.”
Rebecca’s relatives didn’t support the trip of her daughters for nothing in return. The twin sisters had been assured by Ahmed that they will be granted asylum once they applied at the U.S. border with Mexico based on the argument that they feared persecution by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria as a result of their Christianity religion and that they will be able to work and earn good pay in addition to furthering their education once their asylum request is granted. It was the same explanation the girls gave to their uncles and aunts who labored to raise money for them with the expectation that they will get back their monies in a year’s time, at least, with an additional cash reward.
It took close to a year to raise the $10,000 Rebecca’s children needed in total for the trip. They were told by Ahmed that the money covered the cost of traveling by land to Senegal, an air ticket from Senegal to Ecuador, and then the fee for a spidery network of smugglers (including $500 the Nigerian agent receives as facilitation charge) who eventually would help the sisters reach the U.S. southern border with Mexico.