Hillary Omitogun, a student from Nigeria, studies in the library at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on March 30, 2016. Omitogun, 19, came to the United States in 2014 to pursue an education in economics and eventually sustainability and renewable energy. She intends to eventually move back to Nigeria and apply her education to improving her home country. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
From the April 3 issue of the Eastern Iowa Gazette
“I feel safe here,” said Hillary Omitogun, a 19-year-old liberal-arts student at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.
That’s a big deal to her, coming from Nigeria, where the threat of terrorism — through extremist groups such as Boko Haram — has spiked in recent years. Although Boko Haram is based in northeastern Nigeria, Omitogun worries the terrorist organization’s tentacles will spread toward Lagos on the southern coast — where she grew up and where her mother and a sister still live.
That, in fact, is among the reasons Omitogun’s mom backed her daughter’s pursuit of an American education.
“She was scared it could come to Lagos any time,” Omitogun said. “It’s such a huge issue in Nigeria because they don’t know how to control it …. It’s hard to stop them.”
Omitogun arrived in the United States in December 2013, becoming one of Kirkwood’s about 330 international students — a number that has more than doubled in a decade and continues to climb. Four years earlier, back in Nigeria, Boko Haram had launched an armed rebellion against the Nigerian government that to date has killed more than 30,000, according to international authorities and media reports.
Just four months after Omitogun arrived at Kirkwood in January 2014, Boko Haram abducted more than 270 female students from a Nigerian college — outraging the international community and prompting widespread protests and the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Violence around the Boko Haram insurgency spiked that year — Omitogun’s first in the United States — resulting in about 10,850 deaths. And even though she’s in Iowa, Omitogun feels re-traumatized by news of more killings and kidnappings. Because just weeks before getting on a plane to the United States in late 2013, she was abducted herself.
She was one of the lucky ones. Her kidnapping lasted less than a day.
“I found ways to alert people that I was kidnapped,” she said. “And then people came to rescue me.”
But the scare was the final straw for Omitogun’s mother.
“Because of that, she was really bent on me coming here,” Omitogun recalled.
The day of her abduction in October 2013, Omitogun was walking to the bank. Her mother had broken her leg and couldn’t make the 15-minute trip. As she walked, Omitogun said a car of men seeking directions approached her. She couldn’t help them and tried to continue on when another man on the sidewalk, who she now believes was involved, urged her to listen to one of the men in the car claiming to be a religious leader.
But the men lured her into the vehicle, purporting to know things about her life and her family they shouldn’t know. Once in the car, the men tried to manipulate her.
“They did things to me and they said things,” she said. “Those few hours felt like a few days because so many things went on.”
The men threatened her.“They actually asked me to bring money from my home if I wanted everything to go well with my family,” Omitogun said.
When panic overwhelmed her, Omitogun began hitting the car windows and calling for help.
“Some guy saw me, and he came to my rescue and stopped the car,” she said. “I was crying, and I was sweating.”
Years earlier, Omitogun was with her mother, Bola Omitogun, when the woman was robbed and shot — nearly fatally. The mother and daughter had been driving home from work when Bola realized a group was following them. She tried to call for help.
“But everyone went into their homes and locked their doors,” Hillary Omitogun said.
During the attack, the men beat up Hillary and shot her mother twice before speeding off in her car.
“The bullets went really close to her heart,” Omitogun said. “She was supposed to die.”
She didn’t, which is a huge part of the reason Omitogun today is pursuing her dreams in America. Her mother, who continues to work back in Nigeria, sends over money to cover Omitogun’s international tuition of $296 per credit hour — or $4,440 for the average full-time load of 15 hours.
“After watching my mom get shot, I just knew I had to … I mean, I love my country … but there are still things that need to be improved there,” she said. “And I just knew that if I stayed there for too long, I would not get to that place I wanted to get to.”
Omitogun has big dreams about affecting change in Nigeria and places like it through improved technology, policy and resource management. And she hopes an American education will help her accomplish that.
But, Omitogun said, she also is glad to be here for practical reasons — loud sounds still resonate as gunshots to her.
“I just wanted to leave and come somewhere that would be safer for me,” she said.
As a teenager in Nigeria, Omitogun got used to being harassed. “Random people would touch me,” she said. “I would have to tell them to leave me alone or push them away. But there was nothing I could do about all those things.”
By nature, Omitogun is introverted, which, she said, makes Iowa a perfect fit for her.
“I’ve actually had way more opportunities than I thought possible,” she said.After graduating from Kirkwood, Omitogun plans to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she will study economics, with a minor in sustainability. The goal, she said, is to educate herself well and connect with people who share her passion for improving foreign relations and crises.
Mailing address: Friends of Nigeria, c/o Warren Keller, PO Box 8032, Berkeley, CA 94707