The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
This Abroad Life will leave you speechless. Today’s subject woke up one day and had to suddenly move to the USA. She talks about surviving on almost nothing, avoiding an arranged marriage, becoming a citizen and family drama.
Let’s start from the beginning. When did you move to the USA?
I moved here in 2009 for school. But that’s not the real beginning.
You know those children that always got good grades and did everything right? That was me. My dad and my mum were separated and I lived with my mum. We didn’t have much money, so my dad was meant to be in charge of paying my fees. When I graduated from secondary school in 2004, I immediately applied to go to Babcock. I passed the Babcock exams and needed to pay an acceptance fee. When I told my dad, he gave excuses until Babcock deferred my admission to the next year because I couldn’t pay on time. In that same period, he bought a new Benz. There was a new woman in his life and he was being flashy.
I was hurt. My mum still jokes about how miserable I was and how I stayed in bed all day, crying myself to sleep. I decided I wasn’t going to depend on anybody for money again, so I went out and found a job at an events planning agency. I was 16, and the job paid ₦20,000. A lot of that money was going to transportation and feeding, and I was really stressed, so I quit.
The next year, I thought my dad was finally going to pay the fees — he said he was going to. This time, he just ghosted us. And so, I had to stay at home for another year. I got a job as a sales manager at a store in VGC and that’s what I did for the next year or so.
I retreated and lost a lot of my esteem. The people I finished secondary school with were in their second and third years. I only kept in touch with about two of them because I was embarrassed the rest of them would laugh at me.
It was during my sales manager job that my mum’s mum called me one day and suggested I take the SATs. It was funny. I couldn’t afford Babcock. How did she want me to study abroad?
I took the test, got good grades, applied for scholarships and got them. I didn’t spend a penny for that entire process. Someone paid for the test, and someone gave me free books to study.
Then I got rejected for my visa two times. I had to defer my admissions from fall semester to spring semester and back to fall semester again just to make sure I didn’t lose them.
If I was doing all of this on my own, I would have given up. But my mum is a very religious person; she kept saying stuff like, “God said you will go to America. Believe it.” On my third visa interview, she followed me to the embassy and stood outside. My situation hadn’t changed, so I was sure I wasn’t going to get the visa. The guy on my line had rejected everyone before me, but somehow he gave me the visa. When I went out and told my mum, she started rolling on the floor in the Lagos embassy. I wanted to enter the ground.
Hahaha. What happened next?
I decided to go to Lagos State University. I got in to study public administration and I was waiting to resume. I’d gotten the American visa, but it’s not as if we had money for the cost of living in the US or even a plane ticket. I had some money saved from my job. At least if I didn’t go to Babcock, I’d be a big girl in LASU.
Then my mum got a call from the United States one day. It was from a cousin she hadn’t spoken to in over 10 years. Let’s call her Aunty Bisi. Aunty Bisi said God laid it in her heart to bring one of my mum’s children to the US. She said she was willing to sponsor my visa and work through the entire process with us. When my mum told her I already had a visa and a college admission, she said, “Oh, so your child is coming to America but you didn’t tell me.” My mum told her I was going to LASU instead because we couldn’t afford America, they exchanged a few more pleasantries, and the call ended.
A few hours later, Aunty Bisi called again with one instruction: to get me to the airport as soon as possible, because my flight was leaving that night.
It felt surreal. The day was already half gone, so we had to rush to do everything while still processing what was happening. We didn’t have a box, so I used a Ghana-Must-Go bag. When we got to the airport and changed all the money we could gather to dollars, it was $200. So I left with my Ghana-Must-Go and $200. It was my first time on a plane.
I am speechless.
Aunty Bisi wanted to see me before I went to school in Oklahoma, so she connected my flight through Boston where she saw me and gave me advice like, “America is hard” and “Make sure you focus on your studies”, then she gave me $100 and told me bye. This was someone I didn’t even know. She was one of those aunties that would say, “Don’t you remember me?” even though the last time you saw them, you were an infant.
You’re killing me. What happened next?
I moved in with my cousin and her friends in Oklahoma. They shared an apartment. We were meant to share a room, but she used to have a lot of midnight calls with guys in Nigeria. I couldn’t get enough sleep in her room, so I slept on the floor in the living room for the entire first year.
By the time I started school, I still needed money to pay for textbooks and other stuff, so I started looking for a job. Now, Oklahoma isn’t very friendly to immigrants, so all my cousins who were already there told me I wasn’t going to get a job. They’d all tried.
In three weeks, I got a job. I was to clean the toilets on campus. So I’d finish a class, and I’d go and clean the toilets everyone — even my classmates — was using. Nigerians on campus told me to drop the job because it was embarrassing, but it was all about survival for me.
Immediately I got the job, my cousin whom I lived with decided that I needed to start paying rent. I was earning minimum wage — $7.25 — and I could only work for 20 hours in a week because I was an immigrant. I don’t like fighting about money, so I obliged. My monthly income was $575, but when you remove rent money, feeding money and money for books, I was living on vibes. I couldn’t survive for much longer, so I applied for an internship at Disney and got it. It was in Florida, and the pay was really good. I met my international student coordinator at school to sign my papers and let me go for the internship because I couldn’t do anything if he didn’t sign. He said he wasn’t going to sign it because no American student from my school had gotten the internship although a lot of them had tried, and he couldn’t allow me, a foreigner, get it before them. I cried like a baby. Imagine having Disney on my résumé that early in the game.
Oh wow. Sorry about that.
I called Aunty Bisi and told her. She was so angry. She told me to change schools and move to one in Boston where people are more open-minded. So after my first year in Oklahoma, I transferred to Boston. I lived in Aunty Bisi’s house and she fed me. At this point, she was technically my mother. I still had debts from my school in Oklahoma because the scholarship covered only 70% of my tuition. She paid off all the debts. I was working and earning much better. Things were going well. Whenever we went for events, Aunty Bisi would introduce me to people and say she was looking for a husband for me so I could stay in the United States. It was so embarrassing.
One day, I got back from work and met two people at home with my aunt. A mother and her son. They had come to introduce the son to me as the person I would marry. A white, American boy. Aunty Bisi and his mum had already even planned where my new husband and I would live. It was so awkward. I obviously didn’t consent to it, so she didn’t talk to me for three days because apparently, I wasn’t appreciating her efforts to keep me in the United States. We got over it quickly though. She’s a nice person.
Ah, thank God.
Shortly after that incident, I got a call from one of our Nigerian friends in Boston. They heard about an opportunity for Nigerians who could speak any major Nigerian language to join the US Army, and they didn’t want to tell Aunty Bisi because they knew she’d say no. I applied for the opportunity and got a call from an army recruiter the next day. I went through the process, got trained and finally got drafted into the US Army. Within 90 days, I moved from having a student visa to being a full American citizen serving in the army. I even had to submit my Nigerian passport for it to be destroyed as part of my security clearance. I remember crying as I took the oath of allegiance and a speech from Obama was playing. Me, an American.
On that same day after we were sworn in, I filed for my mum’s papers to bring her to the USA and her process was faster than normal because I was in the army. She eventually came in on a Green Card.
There are tears in my eyes. That’s so beautiful.
Haha. I was stationed in Texas, and because I wasn’t married, I had to live alone. In the army quarters, the only family allowed to live with you are your nuclear family — spouse and children. Every other person was extended family. So my mum had to live with her cousin, Aunty Bisi in Boston.
Not long after my mum started living there, she started causing problems and accusing Aunty Bisi of taking over her job as my mother. Like she was trying to steal me.
It became so awkward, and it was getting out of hand. I had to fake an injury to leave the army so I could get my own house in Texas and get my mum to live with me. She still lives with me today.
I didn’t have a job, but my four-year contract with the army was still on, so I had that.
How’s your relationship with your Aunty Bisi?
It’s not the same thing it used to be. In truth, I was much closer to her because I could tell her things I couldn’t tell my very Nigerian mum, and she was there for all the milestones. But my mum ruined it all. My mum keeps saying Aunty Bisi is using juju to take my attention. It’s ridiculous.
Sorry about that. Are you still in the army?
No. Although that period was one of the best in my life, I didn’t renew my contract. I needed to do something different and earn more. My undergrad was in accounting, so I tried to do my masters in accounting, but after one semester, I realised I didn’t want that. I stopped and got an MBA instead.
So there I was: black, a woman and a veteran with an MBA. Every recruiter wanted to hire me. I was hot cake. I couldn’t move away from Texas to get jobs because my mum was living with me, and I didn’t want to uproot her too frequently, so I had to stay and take the jobs that were available.
The first job I took was paying over $110k a year. I had hammered. I still had to pay the student loans I owed, and my mum became extremely demanding — she even told me that I had to bring all my siblings to the US — but it was still a good salary.
Three years later, I now earn over $200,000 a year.
You went from ₦20,000 a month to $200,000 a year.
I like breaking it down for people. I went from ₦20,000, to $7.25 an hour, to $15/hour when I moved to Boston, to $30,000 a year when I was in the army, to $110,000 a year during my MBA, to over $200,000 a year right now.
Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 12 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every story of the series here.