Japa: How former white-collar Nigerians struggle to survive abroad

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Recently, many Nigerians have voted with their feet leaving the country in search of a better life abroad, in this report, Wisdom Deji-Folutile, who was recently in the United States, looks at the phenomenon through the eyes of those who have japa- a new word for fleeing the country.

Waking up at 3:45 AM just like every other morning for the past two years, Alex lugs himself out of bed, into the shower, and into his work boots all in less than 25 minutes.

Although already a senior citizen in his early 60s, he does this swift change of gears with the quickness of a young bull. He has to. It is the natural imposition of the decision he made to fly halfway across the world to Texas, USA, to start another race in the same lifespan, this time as a service worker. Leaving his successful aluminium sheet production business in Nigeria, a decades-long effort that eventually saw him consult for huge government and private firms in Abuja, Alex parted with the properties he owned in various cities in the country and made a gruesome yet necessary decision to move to the states and start all over again. Just like many Nigerians currently living the life he lives, he swapped his retirement letter for another employment, left his family behind in Nigeria, and went to the US to seek greener pastures for them.

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Alex, also like many other Nigerians, often reminisces about the wealth he left behind. To him, that life of comfort, prestige and aged dignity feels like a lifetime ago. However, the starkness of the juxtaposition remains prominently in his psyche, even so much so that he could not tell our correspondent specifically what he now does to make a living.

Hinting at his dissatisfaction with the employment opportunity he has access to, he said, “I can’t tell you what I do—but I can tell you that all of us, bankers, lawyers, whatever, we all meet there and we shake our heads wondering what mess we have put ourselves in.”

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The former vet doctor turned contractor, and now, blue-collar worker, is one of thousands who by reason of Nigeria’s degenerating socio-political landscape made a drastic and definitive decision to swap Nigeria for a life abroad.

International migration is not a new concept. Over centuries, and perhaps, millennia, people have voluntarily undertaken voyages to yonder shores in search of better economic opportunities or housing. And this has held true for Nigerians as well. However, the ebbing wave of migration has slowly grown to a considerable tide in recent years, exacerbated by the country’s socioeconomic and security woes. Between the year 1990 and June 2020, the number of Nigerians living outside the West African country nearly tripled, rising from 447,411 to 1,670,455.

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In 2019, a massive international survey revealed that nearly half of Nigerian respondents (45 per cent) were planning to leave the country within the next five years. World over, there are numerous communities of ethnic Nigerians in their thousands, including across Europe, Latin America and even other African countries. However, notably, the largest communities of emigrant Nigerians can be found in the United Kingdom, and more recently, the United States of America.

In 2019, an American Community Survey (ACS) estimated that 461,695 US residents were of Nigerian ancestry.

That number could be as high as 600,000 in 2022.

Usually, the general assumption regarding Nigerian emigrants is that the switch is always favourable. Notably, Nigerians in America are always listed among the highest-performing demographic of immigrants in America often ranked so according to their percentage of degree holders, and high-income earners. This rhetoric, alongside increasing social insecurity, seemingly serves to influence or at least affirm the decisions of thousands of Nigerians seeking greener pastures. However, the reality is often not the case for many Nigerians, especially immigrants like Alex.

Alex flew to the United States as a visitor, and as such, was conferred a visiting migration status. However, he overstayed his visa, just as 20,000 other Nigerians did in 2019. As such, Alex is an undocumented immigrant and is as a result, ineligible to work in the States. This means menial jobs are the only available options for people like him, regardless of education level or experience.

Available jobs for illegal immigrants abroad

Illegal immigrants often end up working low-level factory jobs, service work, and other opportunities that require minimal documentation. This is the case for Felicia, a middle-aged woman who was a schoolteacher before she left Nigeria. Felicia, like Alex, wakes up very early in the morning to go to work, most times so early that there is no one else on the road.

“There was a day I was faced with a herd of animals crossing the road while walking to work very early in the morning. I was scared. I thought I would die that day. There was no one in sight. But here I am. I got used to such sights eventually,” she told our correspondent over an enthusiastic phone call.

Felicia was more transparent about her new job.

“I care for old people,” she shared. “All I do is cook, dress, give drugs and wash plates for the people I am taking care of and I get paid per hour for that.”

Apata, a young woman, 33, left Nigeria “with nothing” in early 2020 and now works as security personnel at a Walmart facility in Houston, Texas. Once a receptionist, she now spends at least 10 hours standing every day, with one hour on break and earns a minimum wage for her troubles.

Chima, a father of three who turns 62 next year, currently serves as a janitor in a sports facility, often working the night shifts. He has been here for decades, leaving Nigeria in the early 2000s after quitting a job as a sales manager in Lagos.

READ ALSO: Boy Buried Alive by Elder Brother For Stealing N1000

‘I won’t be here forever’

Immigration is a rigorous process, and especially for families, the decision to do so is a protracted one. Most people who leave Nigeria, legally and illegally, often do not intend to save themselves alone. However, successfully following through with the process, and carrying your children along, might not be a very accessible option for illegal immigrants.

For Felicia, staying in America is simply not an option. This is despite the fact that she doesn’t see any problem with her revised status as a blue-collar hustler, or the workload associated with it.

“All I do is cook, dress, give drugs and wash plates for the people I am taking care of and I get paid per hour for that. My work now is simple compared to my struggles in Nigeria without any tangible dividends,” she said.

Felicia believes the move to the US is serving its purpose. Her children are still in Nigeria but she can now finance their education in a private university. She couldn’t afford to do this back home. She is also able to send money for their upkeep.

“This place has helped me a lot and it has covered my shame,” she said, as teachers back in Nigeria often don’t earn a fraction of her minimum wage as a care worker.

However, she said she plans to go back home once her children are out of school and she is able to establish something at home. “I don’t want to stay here forever. I just want to get enough money to start a business and return home. That is my plan”.

Apata, who insists that she does not regret her move to the United States, also said that she did not see a future in her current disposition. “I tell my people back home not to bother coming if they have a job. Even if it is N50,000 (equivalent to $60) they are earning per month. Just stay there. I had nothing, so I took my chance and even though I don’t regret it, I wish I had something back in Nigeria. I wouldn’t have left if I did,” she said.

When asked if she would like to return to Nigeria at any point, Apata said she simply could not afford the move.

Leaving for Nigeria easier said than done

Increasingly, a wave of young Nigerians are swapping home for abroad in what has been called the “Japa” syndrome. Japa is a neologism coined from a colloquial term meaning “to flee”. The phenomenon has captured the imagination of many citizens of Africa’s most populous country, who are now engineering their exit in droves. However, inadequate information, alongside the plying of suboptimal routes due to desperation, has led to several people regretting their decisions and backtracking due to the realisation of the difficulties.

For instance, Alex has said that although his initial idea was that his family would come to join him when he settles in, he no longer sees it as a viable option.

“I left my family behind. But I have told them that I would be the one to [go back] and meet them. They won’t come and meet me here,” Alex said, after speaking on his millionaire-turned-labourer status.

“All I do here is work. Once I am able to build a house in the village, I will return back to Nigeria,” he said.

However, Kolawole Azeez, a media practitioner who has spent 25 years living in the US, says that relocating to Nigeria is easier said than done.

Azeez had, a few years ago, relocated to Nigeria with his children after losing his wife in the US. However, according to him, he had to return when his business crumbled and survival was seemingly impossible.

“I don’t think people here can survive in Nigeria easily. It is not easy. But for those who think they will, it’s a matter of time. Let’s wait and see,” he said.

The now naturalised citizen’s belief is corroborated by the increasingly stark outlook of the average Nigerian’s realities. The rising costs of living caused by hyperinflation, currency devaluation and removal of fuel subsidy have done little to discourage Nigerians from considering the exit.

Chima, who has remained in the States since 2002, has said leaving America is no longer on the cards for him. However, whatever the situation, many still believe knowing the taste of the pudding is in taking a bite, until they japa and experience it for themselves, they won’t believe any unsavoury story told to them.

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