Omolara Aribisala was 12 when her parents sent her from Nigeria to live with relatives in Maryland. An older cousin, with three young children and another on the way, needed help around the house. In exchange, Aribisala would be able to go to school in the United States.
And so the young African girl joined fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary School in Prince George’s County and became caregiver for a family of six. The next nine years were an exhausting regimen of cooking and cleaning under the supervision, she said, of a controlling and sometimes-disparaging female relative.
“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.
Aribisala’s father was a wealthy engineer in Lagos who had multiple wives. Her parents separated, and she was raised in Nigeria partly by older siblings in a house with another wife, but she recalls a comfortable upbringing and a close bond with her parents. “If I was suffering, I never knew it,” she said.
The first year in the United States, she said, her new responsibilities came as a shock. She did not know how to cook and had never changed a diaper. As she took on parenting roles at home, she felt like an orphan at school. She was teased for her second-hand clothes and wild hair.
As she got older, Aribisala became accustomed to long hours of work and high levels of anxiety. When the alarm went off in the morning, her first thoughts were of unfinished laundry or ironing. When the phone rang at midnight, it was her cue to make dinner for her older cousin, who was returning from a swing shift at the hospital.
When she was not working in the house, she was helping to repair the family’s rental properties. Aribisala painted walls, removed old carpeting, raked leaves.
After her cousin’s health faltered, Aribisala became a nurse, helping to dress her, soaping her back in the shower, bringing her a toothbrush and a cup before bed.
Along the way, she said, the smallest misstep — a late dinner, the whiff of dish soap in her aunt’s tea cup, a missed school bus — could prompt verbal or physical punishment.
The cousin’s daughter said she remembers no physical abuse of Aribisala.
But a family friend who declined to be named said Aribisala was often a scapegoat. “It was like she could never do anything right,” the friend said. “She took the blame for everything.”
Aribisala’s emotions gravitated between desire for approval — she would stay up late to clean the garage — and a longing for escape.
She fantasized about walking in front of a car, taking too many pills, burying a knife in her stomach. Her friend Evelyn Mann urged her to run away when she was in ninth grade. She ended up that year at a teen shelter, but a counselor arranged for her return. Nigerians in the community also implored her to go back to her cousins’ home, she recalled, asking: “Do you know how hard it is to come to this country?” “Are you ungrateful?”
Sometimes she fantasized that her father would fly across the ocean and rescue her. Instead she received letters from her parents and siblings encouraging her to study hard and stay out of trouble.
“We are proud of you,” they said. “Be a good girl.”
School was a refuge but also a source of stress.
She struggled with reading and English, and was later diagnosed with dyslexia.
Her athletic potential was clear, though. A high school physical education teacher urged her to join the cross country team.
She went out for the team her junior year but quit after one season, overwhelmed by responsibilities at home.
Mary Sanders, a teacher at Friendly High School, drove her home from practice some nights and got a glimpse of her personal life. “She reminded me of Cinderella,” she said.
The summer after her graduation, Aribisala called Sanders, crying, from a gas station pay phone at 3 a.m.
“Can you come pick me up?”
Sanders found a friend for Aribisala to move in with while she studied to become a nursing assistant.
Out in the adult world, she was an undocumented immigrant with few options. She cared for elderly people at home and in assisted-living facilities.
She married a few years later, had two daughters and then divorced. She also applied for a green card. In recent years, she became a U.S. citizen.
Her outsized responsibilities as a teenager became survival skills. To this day, she is doing what she knows best: care giving.
Her main client is William Smith, 77, an economist and former federal employee. She monitors his vital signs, cooks for him and tidies up.
Smith needed help a few years ago when he was preparing to move from an extremely cluttered house. Aribisala helped him sort through piles of books, boxes and trash, and repair damaged floors. It took a year.
But when it was over, much of her labor went toward a down payment. Aribisala became a homeowner.
As an adult, she said, taking care of people has become a source of self-confidence, not anguish.
Sports have also bolstered her self-image. As soon as she could control her schedule, she started running again — allowing three-mile jogs to extend to eight-, 10-, 17-mile meditations. She signed up for marathons and then learned to swim so she could compete in a triathlon. In 2007, she went out for the women’s tackle football team. At 5 feet 5, 140 pounds, she is not the biggest or strongest player, but she is quick.
Her team manager, Rich Daniel, said she is also the “mom of the team,” someone “who looks after everyone.” Her daughters, Kamil and Kayla, and her teammates are her cheerleaders.
In her Silver Spring neighborhood, she is also a mother hen, the woman at the bus stop making sure children are lined up and loaded in and then compelling parents to come to the next PTA meeting.
Her older daughter is 12, reminding Aribisala of the turn her own life took at that age. She weighs the responsibilities Kamil needs to grow up strong and self-sufficient and which ones she needs to enjoy being 12.
Her daughters’ jobs include keeping their bedrooms and hamster cage clean, Aribisala said, and spending quality time with family. The girls take long walks with their mother and make Friday “pizza night” with Smith. One evening they brought their pillows and a portable DVD player out to the car and pretended they were at a drive-in.
Speaking of her own childhood, Aribisala said, “This is what I missed.”