Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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In the early days of the NFL lockout, Adrian Peterson took to Twitter to dub his job “modern day slavery.”

Omilara Aribisala calls herself a big Peterson fan, but she was among those bothered by his tweet. Like Peterson, Aribisala is a football player: She’s in her fifth year as a defensive end for the D.C. Divas, the local semi-pro women’s football outfit.

Unlike Peterson, Aribisala knows a lot about slavery.

“He wouldn’t use that word if he’d tasted real slavery,” she says. “I lived it.”

In 1985, Aribisala was brought to the U.S. from Nigeria. Her slave ship was a jumbo jet out of Lagos.

Aribisala says her mother and father back home in the city of Ibadan had sent her away, alone, at the urging of a relative living here. The parents were told their little girl would get a better education and lead a better life in America. And, like everybody who grew up here, young Lara, as she was known, would have a chance at the American Dream. They believed.

Instead, Aribisala was forced into labor in a Hyattsville home the day she arrived in this alleged land of dreams. She was given orders to cater to the whimsies of a family of five, which within months would become a family of six when the Nigerian ex-pat matriarch who had arranged for Lara’s immigration birthed a fourth child.

Lara’s daily routine included: cooking all meals, cleaning the home, doing all laundry, bathing all the children and “doing everything but breastfeed” the infant.

She was 12 years old.

Aribisala would spend the next eight years as an unpaid servant for the same family.

“I’d get through the day thinking each night that this isn’t happening, this isn’t my life,” she says. “I’d close my eyes and say that when I wake up this will all disappear, and Daddy’s going to come on a plane and take me away from here! But this was my life. Daddy never came.”

Aribisala’s captors forbid letters to Nigeria. She was only allowed to leave home to attend school. “They were afraid somebody would report them if I stayed home,” she says. She says her PE teachers praised her athletic skills and urged her to go out for the track team, but she wasn’t allowed to participate in any sports or social activities. She was too embarrassed and confused by her situation to talk about her home life to anybody for several years after arriving here.

“I knew what was happening to me was wrong,” Aribisala says. “But I also knew if I called the police, I’d be sent back home [to her captors] and get killed.”

Evelyn Mann met Aribisala when they both were freshman at Northwestern High School. Mann was her first friend in America, and still calls Aribisala her “BFF.” Mann, who is also of Nigerian descent, was the first person Lara confided to about her troubles. Mann recalls convincing Lara to seek freedom through the school. That do-gooder attempt went horribly wrong.

“I got her to go to a counselor at Northwestern,” says Mann. “But the counselor turned out to be from Africa, and instead of helping Lara, she tried to convince her that her situation was normal. [The counselor] called the family that kept her and said Lara was making stories up. That made everything worse when she got home, more beatings. I told Lara that to be abused like she was being abused was not normal, not for a Nigerian or any other human being.

“I was there. I know the people involved,” Mann continues. “I know she gave them her childhood, her whole childhood. But you hear her story now, what a human being can do to another human being, and it seems so unreal. In America?”

Aribisala’s situation remains real for other immigrants, according to human trafficking watchdogs.

Jill Morris, director of advocacy for the Not for Sale Campaign, a non-profit group that combats modern slavery, says that the sort of forced labor Aribisala describes is next to impossible to quantify, but known to exist across the U.S.

“Domestic servitude and slavery is very pervasive in the U.S.,” says Morris. “We find it in well-to-do communities, where wealthy people bring immigrants in to work in their homes, and they’re able to hide it. It’s people from any vulnerable population—Asia, Africa, Central America—and families are told that their children will have this great life, but then passports are taken, and when tourist visas expire, the traffickers know they can control the situation. [Forced-labor cases don’t] come to the attention of authorities or the media the way sex trafficking does, where you’ve got vice squads and [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] squads breaking up big rings. With forced labor, it’s not rings, it’s in the individual home and the single family. But it’s still slavery, modern-day slavery.”

The Not for Sale Campaign is currently lobbying Congress to re-authorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which expires in September. The measure is designed to get the government to treat forced laborers and other latter-day slaves who come forward as victims, whereas when Aribisala was held against her will they were more likely treated as illegal immigrants.

Mann says she finally persuaded Aribisala to escape after graduating from high school. Aribisala admits that she lacked the nerve to leave until taking a beating from her captors for asking about getting a student visa to attend college. She packed a backpack and ran down the street and spilled the whole story to a neighbor, who gave her $50.Aribisala says a teacher picked her up after she called from a pay phone at a Fort Washington gas station. Her captors immediately reported her as a runaway, but when the Good Samaritan neighbor told the cops Lara was out of high school, they didn’t pursue the case. The teacher and other acquaintances hid Lara for several months as her captors smeared her name throughout the Nigerian community.

But, despite heavy pressure from fellow Nigerians in the area, she never went back.

“I didn’t know anything about getting around anywhere, or how to get anywhere. I didn’t have anybody I could trust,” she says. “But so many people helped me, and eventually I got on my feet.”

Jessica Banks, a former sister-in-law, is among those who helped Aribisala recover. Banks befriended Aribisala in 1995, when they were married to a pair of Nigerian brothers. The women’s friendship outlasted both marriages.

“We had the joy of overcoming hurdles with our exes together,” says Banks, “and that’s when Lara’s stories came out, about what she’d been through. The cruelty is hard to process, but I’d been exposed to this same sort of [forced labor] situation in other African communities in this area, and I know the family she worked for, so I believed everything she told me. I know she’s a survivor.”

Banks watched with joy as Aribisala took up nursing and thrived at it, to the point where she now owns and operates a small health-care provider service. Banks gets giddier boasting about her role in exposing Aribisala to a most American pastime: football.

Banks was an offensive linewoman for the D.C. Divas from 2005 to 2009. Aribisala initially showed up just to yell for and worry about her beloved in-law. By 2007, Aribisala wanted more than watching and cheering; she wanted to find out if the athletic abilities that her PE teachers back in high school raved about, skills that for horrible reasons she was never able to exploit, were still there. She went out for the team—and made it. Even when Banks retired, Aribisala stayed a Diva. She’ll be dressed out this Saturday when the 2011 season kicks off at home against rival Boston.

“There were comical moments when Lara started,” says Banks. “She’s a great natural athlete, but she didn’t ‘speak’ football. I remember the coaches telling her that her job as a defensive lineman was to get past the offensive line. So she’d run past the offensive line with no problem, and stop, thinking her job was done. She had to be told that her job was also getting to the ball.”

“When I tackled the quarterback for the first time all my teammates and coaches congratulated me for getting a ‘sack,’” adds Aribisala. “They were all so happy. But I had to ask what a sack was.”

Aribisala knows that being forced into labor as a child was as illegal as it was evil. She says she wanted to go public with her story only after hearing earlier this month about the establishment of Africa’s first American football foundation in Nigeria. Divas General Manager Rich Daniel watched video reports of the ceremony with Aribisala. Among the participants: Houston Texans D-lineman Amobi Okoye, who left Nigeria for the U.S. when he was 12.

“Watching that, I thought about being 12 years old when I first came to America, and all the hopes and dreams I had about everything,” she says.

Aribisala says her ex-masters remain in the D.C. area, but requested that their names not be used in this story and that they not be contacted. For emotional self-preservation, she says, she let go of all bitterness toward them shortly after her escape.

Trivial as it may sound to somebody who hasn’t walked in her cleats, Aribisala says she’d rather dwell on the football season that’s about to commence.

“I believe in God and I believe you reap what you sow,” she says. “I have moved on. These people controlled me, but they didn’t control my destiny. My life is my book, and now I’m writing the ending. I slept on the floor when I got here, now I am a homeowner. I was a slave, now I have my own business. And I’m playing football! I never even dreamed of playing football! But, wow!”

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