behind the BARS
Face-to-Face with CELESTINA JOSEPH
By Anthony Obi Ogbo
It was early
Saturday morning, the day set aside to confirm a story that has given the
newsroom so many headaches due to the fact that major witnesses had refused
to cooperate on the issue.
It's a typical situation with ethnic/community media. The simplest questions or even attempts to initiate any discussion of substance on sensitive stories are met with threats of lawsuits, or other forms of intimidation. Mailboxes are littered with those ugly green-labeled certified letters requesting confirmation of receipt. You can tell by just looking at the top left of the envelopes that they are intimidating letters from wherever, hurling empty threats as an assault against freedom of expression. But that day, such distractions were totally ignored, including a mild, harmless rain that ushered in the bright light of morning. Such friendly rainfall does not require an umbrella - indeed they are showers of blessings. You can feel it, yet it won't stall your step.
It's a long trip to the northside, where a massive and menacing building holds an unknown number of illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. Sometimes there may be an appeal. But chances of that kind of victory are as likely as escape in a horror movie. It is a realm of sadness where immigration violators go in and rarely come out unless, of course, favor from heaven descends to usher in a happy ending. But that would be like winning Texas mega lotto without buying a ticket. Celestina, the alleged victim of child trafficking, had been held in this facility since March 2007. Her arrest was her first brush with the law since she escaped her captors in 2003. Thus began another challenge - an unsuccessful attempt to paddle a canoe upstream through self-reliance. It took her by surprise when immigration authorities besieged her house in the wee hours of the morning. According to Celestina, "I heard a knock on my door, and when I opened it was the immigration. They told me who they were and why they came and ..." The sobs began.
reliably gathered that her captors gave her up to the law for deportation
to avoid any possibility of charges for their wrong-doing. She was speaking
from a booth, clasping a phone and looking straight through the thick, clear
glass divider that separated her from visitors. There was a close resemblance
to some of the photos we had of her, except for the mask of pain clouding
her demeanor. Swollen eyes, washed-out lips, unkempt and ruffled hair and
her overall appearance spoke of fear and despair; frustration, shame - a
pitiful state of hopelessness for a woman destined to be hauled back forcefully
to a remote environment she was taken from some 23 years ago.
She told her story this time without shame. She had kept her ordeal secret for fear of reprisal from her captors and to save her fragile image. But this time, she knew that she had fallen flat on the ground and could never fall again, so finally she is letting her voice be heard, relying on the "Blood of Jesus" to vindicate the unjust and reward her with a happy ending.
She made her condition clear as she cried, "Everything is against me it seems...including an attorney who came here to helped me, but turned out to be close friend of Auntie [referring to her captor]. This attorney, I was told, made my case worse. Auntie's sisters even came here and threatened that if I say the truth it will affect my family in Nigeria...now I got all confused and I'm left all alone." "Can we talk about the rape and the sexual abuse?" inquired this reporter. It was another moment of sadness, but crucial to a documentary that would add to the chronology of thousands of children who had endured the horrors of modern-day child slavery.
She was, in
fact, raped many times by Gabriel, the husband of her mistress and molested
repeatedly at an early age, but refused to admit it when she initially escaped
because "Nobody would marry me if they knew." But she confided the truth
to her benefactor, a Houston-based registered nurse simply called Amaka,
who has been helping whenever possible since Celestina's escape in 2003,
"Of course, she wanted a husband - a meal ticket per se, to help her get
on her feet," said Amaka who confirmed that Celestina told her details of
her rape incidents. "Even though she did not tell me most other horrible
things that happened to her till much later," Amaka said.
"On one occasion," said Celestina, "when I was like 14, something woke me up in the night. When I looked, it was Mr. Gabriel. He was naked and holding his ... (she breaks into tears). I screamed and he quickly left the room. That particular day madam was not home. She went to Nigeria." "Look sister, I'm not here to keep anybody's secret at this point or keep confidential incidents of atrocious nature for fear of smearing an image that has already been destroyed through sheer ignorance and secrecy. I know it's hard to describe any illicit sexual encounters, but look me straight in my probing brown eyes, and tell me, Celestina - have you been assaulted sexually or raped by Gabriel, or any other persons in that house? - I won't ask again" inquired this reporter in true 'Black or White' tradition. She looked up, tears streaming down her roundish face, and said, "Yes."
"Was your mistress aware of the horrible things that happened to you in that house besides the ones she orchestrated?" Again, she answered "yes," and added, "she has even visited me here to ask me if there is anything she could do, but I was so upset and did not want to see her because she already told me that the best thing for me to do is to go back to Nigeria, so she could help bring me back to the United States with another passport. But that's a lie. She just wanted me to go back so she won't get into trouble" But a mountain of allegations surrounding Celestina's case may make sense if all the dots are rightly connected. And moreso since her alleged captor has declined an interview. Our correspondents in Nigeria confirmed Ms Ikeakor had made several threatening calls to Celestina's poor family. Furthermore, it was gathered that a report was filed against Ms Ikeako on March 12 at the Harris County Sheriff's Office for making a terrorist threats against a man believed to be a key member of the group fighting against Celestina's deportation. Details were not obtained as of press time.
Our newsroom also acquired piles of letters believed to be written by Celestina's parents while she was in slavery, but were never delivered to her. While rights groups including Celestina's defenders, some attorneys from the YMCA ,burn the mid night oil to reopen a long-neglected case against humanity, the clock ticks close to execution time, when Celestina will assemble her belongings in a bag-pack weighing not more than 20 pounds and began another journey to darkness. A deportation not necessarily merited, but technically powered by lack of regard for evidence, unfavorable to a proven victim of social tragedy.
This is near
re-enactment of 18th century slavery, where human merchandise was hauled
along a long triangular route. And when freedom eventually reigned, they
were dumped at their various auction grounds to resume an interrupted life
- without any kind of therapy or instructions on how to blend into an fast-moving
It seems that Celestina has lost it all. If a young girl could be deprived of any formal education till she was 19 in the United States, where public education is free, there should be every cause for alarm.
to the core, this girl speaks with fear, and would always say "Hey, I hope
my family in Nigeria will be safe because Auntie is very strong." Almost
all her life she had lived to know only one other superpower besides God,
her captor. Her behavior speaks from a soul which had been witch-haunted
by abuse that has translated itself into depression, anxiety, panic, obsession,
attention deficit, and post traumatic stress.
Symptomatic relief for such severe disorders varies with the problem. Those who suffer them become erratic, inconsistent, and fraught with resistance that makes any therapist want to quit. Some symptoms clear up within 15- 20 sessions. If there is no progress in these areas after a good college try, it's time to consider another therapist or other treatments.
Celestina has never seen a therapist to even perform a simple evaluation.
But the scenario is quite understandable. Slaves are rarely allowed access
to such privileges, including education, for fear of acquiring knowledge
that may undo their masters.
Celestina's case is one-of-a- kind, conceded Chief Eric Ndubueze Ufom, President, Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities International, Inc. "Her case is a typical example of how we should not give in to injustice. We have been working on this case since 2003 and have encountered threats and all sorts of distractions by her captors camp who wanted her deported so their acts could be covered up." Celestina's supporters remain optimistic. Hopefully she can, too.