“I wouldn’t say I had a childhood or anything that resembles a childhood,” Aribisala recalled in an interview.
The older cousin declined to discuss Aribisala’s upbringing. “Whatever happens in the family, the family handles it,” the cousin said in an interview.
Aribisala ran away from her family’s Prince George’s home when she was 21. Today she is a 39-year-old single mother of two in Silver Spring. She is a PTA vice president at Brookhaven Elementary School and plays defensive end for the D.C. Divas, a professional women’s tackle football team.
She’s offering her story because she wants to help other young children laboring in hidden jobs with little hope. “I want them to know it can get better,” she said.
Many parents around the world send their children away to work in exchange for an education — or the promise of one — that might lead to a brighter future.
In West Africa, child labor is prevalent and domestic help common for middle- or upper-class families. There is also a long tradition of sending children to live with relatives to go to school or learn a trade.
The practice has helped countless children of poor farmers become educated professionals. But child advocates in Africa and the United States who see the tradition playing out in some immigrant communities are concerned that it also leaves children vulnerable to exploitation.
“These children have no ability to defend themselves if things go awry,” said Tiffany Williams, advocacy director of Break the Chain Campaign, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of foreign domestic workers.
The State Department has increased protections for adults who come from abroad to work in the homes of diplomats and employees of international agencies, but it’s much harder to safeguard young laborers traveling on tourist visas, as Aribisala did. Williams said she has worked on dozens of cases of young domestic servants who were abused and rarely permitted to leave the house.
Most of Aribisala’s story is based on her own account, and she requested that her relatives’ names not be used. Several family friends and relatives said that they witnessed harsh working conditions.
Aribisala’s older cousin, whom she usually called an aunt, declined to comment on such allegations.
One of the cousin’s daughters said that the Prince George’s family spared Aribisala from a difficult life as a “stepchild” in Nigeria when they brought her to the United States.