MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – When a group of women came to Maryam Muhammad and offered to pay for her trip from Maiduguri in Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, she was grateful for their generosity. A single mother of twins, she had no way of supporting her family and had resorted to begging friends and neighbors for money. So she left her children with a friend and accepted their offer.But once in Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was taken to the home of a woman who made her work more than 12 hours a day as a domestic servant. Her passport was seized, and her wages went to her traffickers to repay the money they spent on her trip.
“I was working every day like a slave,” Muhammad says.
After three years, Muhammad was caught by the police as she walked back to the small apartment she lived in not far from where she worked. They sent her back to Nigeria. With no home and no job, she now lives with her children in a makeshift camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Bulumkutu, a suburb of Maiduguri. Life in Saudi Arabia was awful, Muhammad says, but working like a slave was easier than fighting for survival in the camp.
“We struggle most times to even eat,” she says. “At least in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t have to beg anybody for food.”
In northeast Nigeria, which is being wracked by the violent insurgency of jihadist group Boko Haram, there are barely any programs to support survivors of human trafficking who come home empty-handed. Rejoining their families and communities can be so difficult that some women decide to go back abroad and return to domestic work instead of enduring the daily struggle of making ends meet.
“We struggle most times to even eat. At least in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t have to beg anybody for food.”
But 15-year-old schoolgirl Hadiza Alooma believes trafficking survivors should not have to make that choice. Together with 10 of her school friends, she is helping trafficked women find ways to make an income and rebuild their lives.
“Maryam has a passion for cooking, so we raised money to help her start a business selling fried foods,” Hadiza says. So far, the schoolgirls have raised over $20 for Maryam to launch her business. “If she becomes successful, it will take her mind off Saudi Arabia,” Alooma says.
Back Home, But Nowhere to Go
The Nigerian foreign affairs ministry said in May that there has been an upsurge in trafficking of Nigerians to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, where they often end up in involuntary domestic servitude. In some cases, the women are made to believe that they are being taken to the country to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
According to the Nigerian embassy in Saudi Arabia, a total of 1,000 Nigerian women who were working as housemaids in the Gulf state have been deported home in the last seven months. In May, the issue made headlines when Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP arrested the heads of two travel and tour agencies for allegedly trafficking 96 Nigerians to Saudi Arabia in 2017, using Hajj as pretext.
“Unfortunately, when many [trafficking] survivors from northeastern Nigeria return to the country, they can’t make it back to their communities because of the conflict there,” says Dollin Holt, director of Caprecon Development Foundation, which is educating women in displaced persons camps on the dangers of human trafficking. “Because [these women] live in IDP camps, they are generally viewed as displaced persons and not as survivors of human trafficking, which may explain why they are no special resources put in place by the government to support them.”
Alooma and her friends, who attend several different schools, were volunteering for Caprecon earlier this year, moving from one IDP camp to another to teach women and children how to avoid falling prey to traffickers. That was when they realized there were women like Muhammad living there who had been through the trauma they were warning against. Seeing how difficult it was for the young women to care for themselves and their children, Alooma talked to her friends about finding a way to help. The schoolgirls agreed that if the women could come up with an idea for a business, they would raise the money to fund it.
“These women needed help and since the government wasn’t forthcoming, we decided to act,” says Alooma, who says she and her friends are raising the funds through donations from their peers, teachers and community members, with no support from any NGOs or other organizations.
“We are not an organization, just girls who feel the need to assist women who have gone through so much pain.”
Saved by Selling Groundnut Cake
Along with Muhammad, the girls have also helped 17-year-old Nana Abdullahi, who escaped from her male trafficker as he was taking her, she assumes, to the Gulf.
“Starting a business can help [these women] take care of themselves and their relatives. We want to make sure no woman ever regrets returning home after becoming a victim of trafficking.”
She had left the town of Bama in Borno State in 2015, after Boko Haram militants stormed the area. Leaving her family behind, she fled to Maiduguri where she walked the streets selling fruits to earn cash. One afternoon, a man approached her and said he could help get her a job in Kano, the commercial capital of northern Nigeria. She quickly accepted. But as they traveled out of Maiduguri, he took her past Kano into Niger.
“When I asked why we didn’t stop in Kano as he had told me, he said he had changed his mind and wanted to take me to somewhere better,” says Abdullahi, who has been living in the Madinatu IDP camp, near Maiduguri, since she returned home last year. “I didn’t believe him so I ran away.”
Unable to return to her family in Bama because of the risk involved in traveling home, Abdullahi was given $20 by the schoolgirls at the end of April. She immediately put the money into making and selling groundnut cakes, and is already making an average profit of $2 every week. She no longer has to move from place to place in Maiduguri, begging for money and food.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve made and sold more groundnut cakes from the profit I’ve made,” Nana says. “I’ve also been able to loan money to some women here to buy and sell fruits.”
After only a few months of working with trafficking survivors and helping them start over, Alooma has seen how the chance to earn a living can save a woman from having to go back to a life of degrading and sometimes dangerous work abroad.
“Starting a business can help [these women] take care of themselves and their relatives,” she says. “We want to make sure no woman ever regrets returning home after becoming a victim of trafficking.”