Victim of human trafficking turns life around, helps others

Tucked away in a cozy salon in Anoka, the perky Bukola Oriola with her slender fingers deftly twists braids of jet-black hair into stately corn rows for a customer.


by Elyse Kaner
Staff writer

Tucked away in a cozy salon in Anoka, the perky Bukola Oriola with her slender fingers deftly twists braids of jet-black hair into stately corn rows for a customer.

Bukola Oriola, a former victim of human trafficking who has turned her life around, braids the hair of Angela Okafor in her salon Bukola Braiding and Beauty Supply in Anoka. Bukola’s son Samuel, 3, rests in a scarf secured to Bukola. (Photo by Elyse Kaner)

They chat, comfortably slipping back and forth from Yoruban to English. Their babies play on the floor with toy trucks. They laugh. They cry. The women trade stories. The small studio teems with life.

Bukola, 33, sporting a pile of curls with chic black and red highlights crowning her head, smiles. She is the perfect model for her business – Bukola Braiding and Beauty Supply.

To look at her, one would never suspect the horrors she has suffered, both physically and emotionally. Abuse so intense that at one point she escaped a close brush with death.

Bukola is a victim of human trafficking.

“I was so traumatized, I became depressed and I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror,” she said of her tortured past.

Throughout the four-year ordeal, she nearly lost herself – the strong, intense, happy, curious businesswoman she used to be when she was living in her homeland of Nigeria.

Still, she knew she needed to stay strong for her baby.

“I was at a point of hopelessness, but I had a child to take care of and I didn’t want to lose him,” Bukola said.

Married by proxy

Bukola met Tade (not his real name) over the phone. A family friend introduced them. They talked for hours. He was from Minnesota. She from Nigeria. They fell in love.

He proposed to her over the phone and in 2004 they married. In Nigerian fashion, the marriage agreement is between families.

A wedding was held on the couple’s behalf in Africa. Bukola attended the ceremony, while Tade remained in America. He called in on speaker phone to introduce himself as the groom. In essence, the couple were married by proxy.

In 2005 Bukola made plans to come from Lagos, Nigeria, to the United States. She was a reporter for a Nigerian newspaper and was assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the United Nations and General Assembly. She came to America on a work visa.

She flew to New York for her assignment. But Tade wanted to meet her beforehand. So he bought her a plane ticket to Minnesota. It was the first time the couple would meet face to face.

Initially, her new husband was nice to her. After her visit, Bukola headed back to New York. When it came time for her to return to Nigeria, Tade bought her a second ticket back to Minnesota.

“He begged me to stay,” Bukola said.

In their conversations, he promised to change her work visa status to an espousal status. They would finally live together as man and wife. Bukola took up the offer.

But their marriage was not recognized in the United States.

Things soon turned dark.

She was isolated

“I came not knowing that I was agreeing to something that would almost cost me my life,” Bukola said.

Resources for human trafficking victims and victims of abuse

Civil Society
332 Minnesota St., E1436
St. Paul, MN 55101-1326
651-291-0713
www.civilsocietyhelps.org

Alexandra House
P.O. Box 49039
Blaine, MN 55449-0039
763-780-2330
www.alexandrahouse.org

Home Free Battered Women
3405 E. Medicine Lake Blvd.
Plymouth, MN 55441-2307
763-559-4945
www.homefreeprograms.org

Department of Health and Human Services
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Toll-free 24-hours
1-888-373-7888

Department of Justice
Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation
Task Force Complaint Line
Toll-free 24-hours
1-888-428-7581

Police: 911

Source: Bukola Oriola’s book “Imprisoned: The travails of a trafficked victim

“I almost died in the process. I suffered hardship. I suffered hunger. I suffered all through my pregnancy.”

There were times when she stood and worked for 14 hours. When she finished, Tade would collect the money.

“When I asked him for the money he would tell me I am living in a free house in America, I am eating free food in America, I am watching free TV in America, I am using the phone free in America and I’m asking for my money? What’s money? And that’s where the conversation ended,” Bukola said.

Moreover, Tade had lied to her Bukola later learned. He said he had been married before, but that he was separated. He wasn’t. He never filed immigration papers for Bukola to allow her to stay in the country either, no doubt because of his marriage status.

Instead, he held her hostage for two years in his home in a Twin Cities suburb. He mentally abused her. Isolated her. Raped her. Denied her food. She got a rare glimpse of the outdoors by peeking through the drapes.

Also, Bukola’s clothes seldom fit. Tade would take her into stores a few minutes before closing time. She was forced to grab a piece of clothing without trying it on because of the time constraints. She always chose clothes that were too big. Better too big than too small. There was no returning them.

Once while they were in a grocery store, the pregnant Bukola starving for food asked for a banana.

“Where are we going to get the money for bananas?” he screamed at her.

The only time he would take her out was on Sundays when they attended church together. It was there, the innovative Bukola spotted a need.

She had always loved braiding hair, a talent she inherited from her mother. As a former reporter, Bukola was used to working seven days a week. She disliked being idle in Minnesota. So when she saw African or African-American women at church, she told them of her braiding talents. She gave them her phone number.

“That’s when he (Tade) decided to exploit me,” Bukola said.

Her husband set up a make-shift salon in his home. Soon, the church ladies came. Bukola braided hair for hours. Tade took the money.

In 2006 she gave birth to a baby boy, Samuel, the love of her life.

But Bukola continued to be a prisoner in Tade’s house. Her future looked bleak. Hopeless.

He used her

One Saturday morning in 2007, Bukola called a taxi to take her to work at a nearby small salon she and Tade had started.

Just as the taxi was pulling away, the police arrived at their house. Perhaps, they should turn around to make sure everything is fine, the driver told her. They doubled back.

It turns out Tade had filed a police report against Bukola. But he was not home that morning. Hesitant to say much, Bukola told the police that her husband was abusing her and not taking care of their child. They told her to leave the house.

Bukola did return that evening, however, and found Tade’s phone charger on the kitchen counter. It was broken. Bukola suspects he was going to tell the police that she had gone into a rage and broken it. That she was acting crazy. It was evidence – a reason for him to file for a restraining order. To have her deported.

Tade was done with her. He had grown tired of her.

“His goal was to get the baby and to get rid of me. He wanted to use me to prove his manhood,” Bukola said.

At the shelter

At the urging of a client in whom Bukola confided, Bukola called a public health nurse. One had visited her in her home when she was pregnant. The nurse told her she was not safe in the house. She referred Bukola to Alexandra House, a support shelter in Blaine for abused women and families.

“And that was how I advanced from my journey to freedom,” Bukola said.

At the shelter, Bukola and Samuel were fed and provided a place to stay. They received personal supplies – bedding, wash cloths, the basics.

Alexandra House offered support, advocacy and education to rebuild her self-esteem and to start the healing process. They referred her to counselors specializing in violence issues and referred her to a support group for immigrant women and refugees.

“You have to have the resources in place to turn your life around and she was able to get the resources,” said Amanda Vickstrom, development and communication director of the Alexandra House. “She was in a place to utilize these resources and do what she needed to do to heal. She had a lot of self-motivation.”

Although the shelter has seen few human trafficking victims, some may be victims and not step forward, staff said.

“When you hear the worst of the worse, you hear something even worse,” said Jenny Green, shelter director. “You get that surprise at how cruel people can be to one another.”

It was bad enough that Tade was abusing her, but for Bukola, seeing her son suffer was unbearable.

“Samuel was the strength I was using to survive to see another day,” Bukola said.

They remained at the shelter for six months.

Legal status

As a result of attending the immigrant support group, Bukola hooked up with the Civil Society in St. Paul, a Minnesota state and federally funded non-profit organization that helps victims of international and domestic human trafficking in the United States.

The organization assigned Bukola an immigration attorney and scheduled a meeting with law enforcement.

Originally, Bukola was in America on a legal visa, but because Tade did not file her paperwork as promised within 60 days, she became undocumented, said Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society.

The organization helped her file for legal status, which she has been granted, under the federal Trafficking Victim Protection Act. The idea is to keep her in the U.S. so she won’t be deported. If she were to be sent back to Nigeria, her son would be left with the trafficker.

“She’s just a fountain of good energy,” Miller said. “She’s never defeated and I think that’s a lot of the reason she got through (her difficulties).”

Lately, Bukola has teamed with Civil Society to give presentations to colleges and universities, churches, at the state capitol, health clinics and more on the trials of human trafficking victims.

Back on track

While living in Tade’s house, Bukola had been wise enough to figure out how to sock away a few dollars she had earned from braiding hair, money the greedy Tade knew nothing about.

Gradually, she got her life back on track.

Today, she operates her own shop, the dream of a lifetime. Braiding hair gives Bukola an outlet to express her creativity.

But Bukola has found her calling in another way.

She now speaks out for victims of human trafficking. She wants people to know resources are available to help them.

“I want the public to know that anyone can fall victim to human trafficking, regardless of race, background, age, culture, tradition, profession or status,” she said.

She goes into an explanation. Human trafficking is a result of force, fraud and coercion. It could be to lure someone to the United States with promises of a false marriage or employment. Or a promise to attend school.

Initially, traffickers are kind. But they turn a person into domestic help and collect the money for themselves. They force them to work in “invisible industries, including sweat shops, restaurants and hotels, farming or construction. Or they use people for prostitution.

Using a victim as a prostitute can be worth up to $400,000 a year to a trafficker, said Miller of the Civil Society, quoting federal government statistics.

“Because of fear, the victim will be compelled to follow the order of the trafficker,” Bukola said.

The trafficker might threaten a victim or threaten to blackmail or harm his or her family.

Minnesota has become one of 13 most heavily sex and slavery human trafficking states in the nation.

The federal government estimates about 20,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. each year, according to the Civil Society Web site.

‘Just destiny’

Growing up in Nigeria, Bukola didn’t have a sister, so she practiced braiding her five-year-old brother’s hair. She braided the hair of kids in the neighborhood.

As a child, she attended a boarding school in Nigeria. She loved braiding her classmates’ hair. The children said she would have her own salon some day.

“I believe it’s just destiny,” Bukola said about operating her salon.

At her shop, she stops attending to her client for a moment to wrap a silken shawl around her body. Samuel, now three years old, is fussy and growing tired. He wants to take a nap. A fold in the orange scarf doubles as a safe, sleeping harbor. She swoops him up and places him on her back. She continues braiding. Samuel is content.

Step by step, Bukola is regaining her happiness. She is returning to the former outgoing personality that she once knew. As for Tade, she no longer fears him. The law is on her side, she says.

He used to threaten her, not with weapons, but with deportation and the police.

“What he was using to make me afraid is what is empowering me now,” she said.

Bukola holds firmly to her beliefs. “The truth is what will prevail,” she says.

Setting up shop

After leaving Tade, Bukola knew she needed to fend for herself. She transferred the business into her name.

She contacted bank after bank for a business loan to cover operating expenses, but they turned her down. She had no credit history and hardly any capital. Still, she managed to pay for her rent with what business she had.

Gradually, the shop has come together. Bukola has managed to increase her inventory and furnishings. Hanging in neat rows on one wall of her quaint salon are dozens of thick hair extensions waiting to be braided into clients’ hair. Blacks. Reds. Browns. Human hair and synthetics.

Bukola found a hair supply company in Nigeria willing to take monthly payments. The management company she rents from donated chairs. A client liked Bukola’s work so much that she gave her a salon chair for a tip. She liked the effort Bukola put into styling her hair and at the same time she exuded love.

“I said, ‘Wow! That was the best tip I got!” Bukola said, beaming a broad smile.

More than a friend

Bukola stops to show her meticulous work. All natural. No chemicals. Particularly important to her is that no patchy spaces show between corn rows where the hair might be sparse and reveal bare scalp. She continues weaving hair extensions into the braids of her customer.

“Is that too tight?” she asks, ensuring that her client is comfortable.

Angela Okafor from Maple Grove is her customer on this particularly bright morning. They first met at church.

“She’s just like a sister to me,” Okafor says.

This is the first time Okafor has had her hair done up in corn rows. She sits patiently for a process that can take up to three or more hours to complete.

When Okafor was in the hospital having a baby, Bukola visited her. She came to her house and braided her hair.

“She’s not like a friend; she’s like family,” she said emphasizing the word “family.”

Future plans

Bukola chose the Anoka site for her salon because of location. It’s close to her home and the rent is affordable. She has about 100 clients so far, but hopes for more.

She has plans to open a braiding school and has already taught a course on braiding. Maybe, someday she will add more staff to her shop. She also plans to open the shop to male clients.

As for her future, Bukola has decided to stay in America, not so much for herself, but to help others.

It’s not easy for trafficking victims to tell their story because of public shame and criticism, Bukola says. But she has decided to step forward.

Of utmost importance to Bukola is to help others as she has been helped.

She wants people suffering similar trauma to know that help is available “instead of becoming a statistic,” she said.

She plans to continue advocating for victims and telling her story. Her reporter’s background has come in particularly handy. She has told her story on TV, radio and the Internet.

She has written a book, “Imprisoned: The travails of a trafficked victim.” It tells of her struggles and triumphs, of human trauma and the ability to recover. The book provides resources for those in need of help.

Now, when she looks into a mirror, Bukola is once again able to recognize herself.

“Now, I am stepping out to speak, to take the shame for everybody,” Bukola said. “So that victims who need help can hold onto my shame as a ladder and climb it to get help that is available.”

*****

For more information on Bukola Oriola or to purchase her book, visit her Web site at www.bukolabraiding.com or www.lulu.com. “Imprisoned” is also available at J. O’Donoghue’s bookstore in Anoka. You can sign up to become a fan of Bukola Braiding on her Web site. Bukola Braiding and Beauty Supply is located at 2022 N. Ferry St., Suite 3103, in Anoka. Call 763-433-9454.

Elyse Kaner is at elyse.kaner@ecm-inc.com

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