I wish I could tell you my story was not a common one, but that would be a lie. There are many chapters in my story that are not pretty, and many more that some would be reluctant to share, but there are also chapters that need to be celebrated, ones in which I escaped a life that for many years, hardly belonged to me. But before I offer a glimpse of the many episodes that have made me the strong independent woman I am today, let me tell you this: I am a survivor, I am strong, and I am steadfast to do my part to help put an end to the ‘swept under the rug’ situations of countless young girls around the world. My name is Erepade, and while I may be shy, I am fierce in my determination to share my story and highlight the wrongs that happen in my not-so beloved homeland of Nigeria so that the world is forced to face these battles with us and no longer turn a blind eye.
When I was five-years-old I was torn away from my parents and my sister during a genocide many people don’t even know existed. I don’t know what happened to my family. They could be dead, they could be slaves, they could be survivors. I have tried searching for them, but like many others, my efforts were hopeless. I am from the Southern region of Nigeria, a state called Bayelsa, and while the first years of my life were pleasant in that I slept under the same roof as my family, they were never easy. As long as I can remember, Nigeria has been stuck in a politically fueled crisis. Like many others, my family and fell victim to the 1999 Odi Massacre – a violent and tragic event that remained unknown and unaffecting the majority of the world, but not mine. Since being separated from my family I was forced to grow up in a refugee camp and in many ways I raised myself. There was nobody there to protect me, I was alone. I suffered in many ways and faced issues many young Nigerian girls are forced to deal with when they have nobody to protect them. The world can be an ugly place, and while I remain largely affected by some traumatic experiences I am not broken. I wish someone would have told the little girl version of me to stay strong and never give up – this is the hope I want to pass on to the many young girls and women facing similar situations today. I am 26-years-old now, and while the lost, lonely child I once was shaped the strong and independent woman I am today, getting to this point wasn’t easy.
In many ways I consider myself one of the lucky ones in that I escaped and that through my ongoing determination I was able to take advantage of some good opportunities. Getting a proper education has always been a dream of mine. I know that in order to help other young women like myself I need to learn the system and understand the politics in order to fight the corrupt world Nigeria is stuck in. My entire life I have been patiently waiting for things to get better and when I was 20 I was brushed by my first real stroke of luck. I was granted a scholarship by Shell to complete my Bachelor in Political Science. I loved it, I got to read and learn about the world and other countries. There is a giant world out there, and I want to be apart of it! As soon as I finished my degree, I was hungry for more. I knew the time had come to leave Nigeria – my dreams of working in a big organization like the United Nations would only be possible if I took bigger chances. Nigeria did not offer me these opportunities. It was when I met a renowned local Nigerian woman who travelled to and worked in Germany a lot that my chance had finally come. She was known for being a savior of sorts, a woman helping other women leave Nigeria and go to Germany where they could find work, get better education, and eventually stand on their own two feet. She even took me with her for a short visit to see if I liked Germany! After returning to Nigeria going back to Germany was all I could think about. And then it happened. She came for me and said she could sponsor my move, and so I packed my few belongings, said my goodbyes and proudly moved to Germany. Little did I know that while my dream was finally coming true, so was my nightmare.
A philanthropist I would call her. A woman with no heart, just a mindset for money. It didn’t matter to her how she supported her lavish travel-filled life. This time, I was the expense. I hadn’t been brought to Germany to work in her office and learn about politics, I had been brought to be sold to the underground world as yet another young Nigerian woman with a pretty face and nobody to look after her. I had no other option but to run. I went to the German government and pleaded for their help – they were my only hope in escaping an otherwise inevitable life of torment. So much of this chapter of my life seems a blur. I don’t know what happened to this serpent of a woman or the many people involved in this scam, nor do I really care. Of course I hope they caught her, because if she can do it to me, she can do it to all the other lonely and vulnerable Nigerian girls with nobody to protect them. All I know is I am safe…I am finally free from the life I never chose. I have been in Germany nearly two years now, and while it is much better than being back in Nigeria, it is not easy. I often see so many young girls like myself who need help. It is embarrassing to see how many young Nigerian woman get pregnant in Germany because they think that this will give them the right to stay here. It is not true, but they do not know any better. They are 16, sometimes even 14 and they think getting pregnant is normal..it’s not! Nobody is helping them. I don’t know if I could ever say I am proud of being Nigerian, but I do want to help the endless number of Nigerian girls who are living a life I know all too well.
This is why I believe in education – without education, you do not have the tools to make a change, and if you are not working toward change, you are not making the most of the life you are given. I have been living in Munich for almost two years now, and while I wouldn’t say it has been easy, I suppose nothing in life is. But I move forward, and I make the best of all my chances. After escaping the trap I was brought to, I was given a place at a university in Munich. But because of missing documents and little support from the job centers I had to give up my place. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was depressed…I felt stuck. But then I learned about Kiron and I finally had something to do. I put all of my energy into studying and I found a sort of balance again. Kiron gave me a kind of hope that my life in Germany was going to be okay. I started taking political science courses and before I knew it, I was less depressed and even having some moments of happiness. After three months of Kiron studies, I applied and was accepted into New European College in Munich where I am working to get my Master in International Management. I am in the second of five semesters and I am thrilled by the challenge and opportunity! Here I am surrounded by cultural diversity and I love it. I don’t have many friends but that’s because I am always at school or at home studying. Of course I’d like to meet some friends, but I have always been shy and I don’t mind being myself.
I have two happy places that help fill the occasional moments of loneliness. The first is the English Garden in Munich because I can simply sit and watch people laugh and smile..it gives me such a peaceful feeling. The second is in my writing – it doesn’t really matter where I am or what kind of day it has been, but I can get lost with pen and paper in hand. I am able to release years worth of locked up emotions through everything from short stories to poetry and it makes me feel so free. Sometimes I even reminisce on the scarce but fond memories of back home. The colorful and lively community gatherings where everyone is friends with everyone! The vibrating sound of music as you dance and share meals with your neighbors and even complete strangers. In contrast to this, Germany can be a bit cold. Germany may be a more polite and proper country, but it certainly has given me more than I could have asked for. I still dream of the day I will give my speech at the United Nations about not giving up and about the power of hope. I long for the day where I can be a part of an organization or even start my own to help girls who have experienced the many painful and toxic things I too have endured. I will never give up on working towards becoming the woman I once dreamed would come save and protect the little girl I once was.
Interview by Alisha Merkle #Education4Integration campaign, sponsored by H&M Foundation