Emory Report
March 23, 2009
Volume 61, Number 24



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March 23
, 2009
A courageous tale from another’s lips

Portia Allen is program administrative assistant in the School of Medicine.

The story I am about to tell is not my own; I write on behalf of an Emory colleague who desired to share her story with the Emory community but did not wish, for many reasons, to tell it herself. She asked that I withhold her name and some of places referenced, but all dates, personalized accounts and historical events are factual. Her story symbolizes possibilities and pain; it is draped with love, injustice, migration, freedom, activism and solidarity. It begins in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria and connects to the academic halls of Emory University.

This is her story, as she told it to me:

“When I was an adolescent, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars surrounded me in the Niger Delta; this was ‘crude oil’ wealth, unevenly distributed to the Nigerian people. Consequently, I encountered quite a few challenges: public health barriers, economic strife and crushing poverty.

However, these challenges did not discourage me; rather I was driven and inspired to obtain a university education. I yearned for this higher degree because my favorite uncle used to say: an educated man will never get lost for he can read. In other words, learning was my freedom card.

It was ironic then that soon after graduating from high school, I chose to work as an office assistant at a popular Nigerian university instead of studying there. This was a necessary decision made for my family.
Working in a university environment opened many doors. One such occasion arose when I was given the opportunity to coordinate countrywide university games with a well-known and respected professor in the theater department.

Professor Ola ended up being an excellent mentor; he motivated me to revisit my scholastic dream. Also, he shared the importance of reaching out to others in my community. For example, when he paid for part of my undergraduate tuition in 1991 (I was pursuing a bachelor of science degree in public administration at the time), he said: ‘I am giving you this money because I want you to help humanity.’ His gift was life-changing yet also very overwhelming, especially since I was struggling financially to support my siblings and parents as well as myself.

As I continued to work toward obtaining my degree, I reflected about the past steps that led me to this point: working tirelessly to obtain my secretarial certificate in 1988 and then successfully receiving my associate’s degree in secretarial administration in 1990. Indeed, I was looking forward to graduation day in 1996. Then, at its doorstep, I was forced to flee Nigeria for the safety of my child’s life and my own.

I left behind everyone and everything that I had loved, known and cherished. It all happened so fast.
What I remember vividly was the historical Ogoni Day 1993, when 300,000 Ogonis protested peacefully about the recurring socio-economic injustices in the oil-rich Niger Delta. This nonviolent demonstration bore huge consequences, many of which we did not fathom.

For instance, Ken Saro-Wiwa (a principal Ogoni leader and world-renowned environmentalist) was accused by the Nigerian government of inciting riots. A warrant was later issued for his arrest. The next domino effect was that any persons affiliated with events like Ogoni Day faced detention, harassment, intimidation, and even death.

Homes and lives ended up being destroyed and Nigerian soldiers, not police, were all over my community. The academic climate was tense too, with community conversations held about the political changes facing us.

I was deeply concerned. A warrant had been issued for my husband’s arrest because of his ties to Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni movement. For his personal safety, we agreed that he had to leave the Niger Delta.

I was so distraught during this time, I prayed for courage and strength to continue. Separated for more than 18 months, my husband and I, who were still newlyweds, managed to meet thrice before he left the country. One memorable get-together occurred in late 1994 when we produced an offspring.

With a baby on the way, it was very important for me to finish university, so I continued with work and school. Then in early 1996, a few months before I was to graduate, Nigerian soldiers started detaining some of the wives of Ogoni leaders. My family and I decided it was time for me to leave. The plan was for me to seek asylum at a United Nations refugee camp in the Republic of Benin and later meet my husband in the U.S., in Atlanta.

It was really tough getting to the camp; travelling by local buses with no documentation, never knowing who I could really trust, resting in random homes, having access to minimal food and water and walking many miles with a baby on my back. There was also the constant threat that any Nigerian found crossing the border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin could be shot on site. What kept me going were my newborn baby, beloved husband and family back in the Niger Delta.

When my baby and I finally arrived in Atlanta, after being in the refugee camp for seven months, I was so relieved. Safely, we could begin again.

For the many years that followed, there were a lot of ups and downs in addition to the heavy, survivor-guilt of having left my family and community behind. Plus, there were a lot of my friends who had lost their lives.

During these difficult times, I reminded myself of the priceless joys and gifts I had received. I was most thankful for unique treasures like knowing freedom again, feeling secure and being introduced to Emory University.

A perfect place for me, Emory reminded me that a commitment toward transformation in the world through courageous leadership is the essence of academia, perseverance and possibilities. Also, it was symbolic of a great academic environment I once knew and loved, where a zeal for education was common as the rain and when a young lady inspired by her favorite uncle could dare to follow her dream.”