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Celebrating Christmas Abroad Boring, We Miss Home – Nigerians in Diaspora

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GODFREY GEORGE speaks with some Nigerians in the Diaspora, who are celebrating Christmas for the first time abroad, to share how they are coping with loneliness in new environments

Mr Chukwuemeka Okpara had always wanted to go to school abroad. Although his family’s income was below the middle class, he said he had the hope that he would one day move to the United Kingdom to get further education.

The 31-year-old Ugwueke indigene from the Bende Local Government Area of Abia State was hit with disappointment when his dad took ill and he had to stop school.

Being the last child and only boy, he had to wait for his siblings to move ahead so that the family’s finances would not be strained.

So, from 2008 when he left secondary school, he waited till July 2013 when his father eventually passed away.

Okpara stated, “It was a really tough time for me as a young man seeing all my mates get ahead. It was also tough for my mother, who was just a private school teacher. My siblings were also in school and were also struggling to make ends meet.

“While waiting for my father’s recovery, I decided to take the initiative to learn music, teach at a primary school in Lagos, and also develop myself at home.

“When my dad died, I knew that I needed to pick my life back up. I also knew that I was going to be doing that alone since I had no one to help me, but I trusted God to be my help at all times.”

Months later, Okpara enrolled to study Estate Management at the Yaba College of Technology for the National Diploma. That was one decision that changed a lot of things for him.

He had to virtually foot his own bills, live from hand to mouth, and live in lecture halls.

He added, “I slept and woke up in lecture halls. I would bathe, brush my teeth, and do everything on campus. I had nobody, but I knew I must survive.

“I couldn’t call home for any money because I knew there was none. It eventually paid off when I graduated in 2016 with a distinction. My CGPA was 3.65 out of 4.0.

“It made me so pleased but that was only the end of a phase and the beginning of another.”

Okpara said he took another risk by using some money he had saved up to purchase a post-Unified Matriculation Tertiary Examination form and was eventually admitted to study Estate Management at the University of Lagos, Akoka.

With no money in his pocket and his siblings still struggling to stand on their own, Okpara said he almost dropped out.

Eventually, during the COVID-19 period, he made the conscious decision to do home lessons and take up some odd jobs to make ends meet.

The efforts eventually paid off. He graduated with a first-class grade with a CGPA of 4.72 out of 5.0.

Moving abroad

Okpara said he started harbouring thoughts of moving abroad in 2019 when some of his lecturers told him of the endless opportunities on the other side.

He narrated, “My lecturers, particularly Prof Oluseun Ajayi, looking at my career trajectory and seeing the struggle I had to go through during my time in school, told me to start considering options in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

“I also started doing some research to find out some schools I would be able to attend. I even applied to some schools in the UK and got admitted to six, but lack of funds blew my chances away. I was so frustrated and I was so broken and just decided that, perhaps, it was not God’s will for me. The tuition was so huge and I knew I couldn’t pay.

“Prof Ajayi encouraged me and asked me not to give up. He told me how he got a scholarship to study abroad. The dream came back alive. I started discussing with other lecturers, including the Dean of my faculty, who studied at the University of Reading, England. I also worked as an estate valuer in Lagos, and there was still this longing in my heart to advance and go abroad in search of a better life.”

It took Okpara three years to finally move to the UK. A ray of sunshine came in August 2022 when he got admitted for a Master’s in Real Estate Management at the University of Reading.

He stated with a bright smile, “I just got an email that I was admitted. I was not really excited because I knew I could not foot the bills. But, in November, I got another email that stated that I could get a full scholarship if I applied for the African Real Estate Society scholarship in conjunction with the Reading Real Estate Foundation.

“I put in my application, wrote my essay, and I got a call-up and another mail in February 2023 that I had been granted a full scholarship. It was like good luck fell on my lap. I was overjoyed. It was a 100 per cent scholarship of over £20,000.”

Funding the dream

After making a consultation and doing his research on how much he would need to study abroad, Okpara said he was overwhelmed. He needed over N10m if he wanted to actualise his dreams, even with a full scholarship to cover his tuition.

He noted, “I began to speak to everyone I knew to help fund my dream. Some people began to make contributions, but it was really not enough. It became a communal effort of some sort. I would send emails out to everyone I knew and send reminders, and all I could get was not even up to 10 per cent of what I needed.

“I eventually had to get a loan of N10m and sort out my proof of funds of around £9,207. I had to start paying interest, which when accumulated would be around N2.5m. I had no choice. I wanted to go to the UK and I had to do everything to make it work.

“Even in the UK here, I got another loan of around £1,200 from a society at Reading, which I hope to start repaying. When I look at my life, I don’t even know how I was able to do all that within a short period.

“If it were possible, I would have sold property. But, the only property we have is the house where my mum lives. I got in one month after the programme had even started.”

According to Okpara, life abroad is not as rosy as many people paint it to be. He added that he would go to school by 8am after an 11pm to 7am night shift at a factory.

“I would spend half my time in class sleeping. It is not a bed of roses here at all. There are opportunities but you will spend all your money paying bills, settling loans and sending back home, but I thank God for everything. I would not have it another way. It was a life of uncertainty but it is worth it,” he noted.

First Christmas abroad

Okpara said before leaving for the UK for his master’s, he had not travelled abroad before for any reason.

He noted that the festive season for him had been cold and lonely.

He stated ruefully, “People don’t talk to you. They don’t greet you or visit you. Everyone is too busy. Sometimes, I sit back in my room and begin to think of my family back home and how Christmas would be bubbly over there even with the tough economic situation in Nigeria.

“I miss home. It gets really boring here sometimes. Being the first son and breadwinner in my family, whenever I call my mother and she begins to complain about how her health is deteriorating, it makes me feel really sad. But, leaving them behind is the one way I can make sure that I am there for them when they need me the most.

“I just wish I can get someone who will be willing to fund my education here so that I can concentrate and not be working so much. I honestly need to support my family financially.”

Okpara added that he told himself that when he came to the UK he would travel around Europe for Christmas, but decided against it when he looked at his pocket and the amount of school work he had to turn in January.

“I barely have time for myself but that is the life here. I look forward to seeing if I will get a surprise visit on Christmas Day or if anyone will send me a plate of jollof rice and chicken like neighbours used to do in Nigeria on days like this.

“I really miss Nigerian food. I came with some foodstuffs but they were not like back home. The range of options, the lifestyle and the connectivity are not here in the UK. Everyone is just so busy. Even when you greet some people, they may not respond,” he quipped, giving out a huge laugh

Four-year pathway to Canada

Thirty-year-old indigene of Etsako East Local Government Area of Edo State, Mr Great Omueyaki, gave himself a four-year-plan to relocate to Canada.

After finishing his Higher National Diploma in Biochemistry from Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, in 2016, he knew that he needed more out of life.

When former President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in for the second term in 2019 and the economy took a downward turn, Omueyaki said his plans became really serious.

He stated, “I got my passport, completed national service, got my transcript, and proposed to my wife. We eventually got married and had a child in 2022 and I knew that was the right time to put the plans in motion.

“It was a strong longing that I wanted my daughter to grow up in a saner environment and have an option of having another passport other than the Nigerian passport.

“I looked at the list of options I had and I chose Canada. I was still dragging my feet because of the money involved but after the last elections, I did everything legally possible to mop up forex and left Nigeria.

“For me, it was either I left Nigeria with my mind intact or I would lose my mind trying to survive the economy with my spouse and daughter.”

It eventually took him eight months – November 2022 to July 2023 – to complete the process, get admitted and move to Canada on a study visa.

Omueyaki said as he was working to get a study visa, he encouraged his wife to get a work visa, which also worked out.

He narrated, “It is not as easy as I am saying it. My wife and I saved up as a family. We didn’t really have to sell anything. We simply cut some costs and mopped up extra cash for a better future for our child, and I am so glad that it eventually paid off.

“Our properties are still very much intact back in Nigeria. I didn’t let go of any property besides letting go of a country I love with every drop of blood in me.

“When I remember the reason I decided to relocate, it brings me to tears. I feel sad every time, but the alternative was to stay back and go through the dark times with my family, and that was a no for me.”

He added, “I know how we always rallied around ourselves, cooked and ate together and had a good laugh, but all that will not be possible now that I am abroad. It can be sad sometimes, I must admit.

“The fact that I will not experience a Naija Christmas makes me so sad. I think this period is probably the saddest I’ve been since my arrival. I am glad I got snow; my wife and child are here.

“I miss Nigerian cuisines cooked in Nigeria, but I do not miss the chaos that comes with Nigeria at all.”

Life abroad

The father of one said life abroad was peculiar; far from the optics one sees online.

He said he was still trying to conquer the culture shock and the struggle of building his ‘street credibility, social network and capital from scratch’, adding that it had been challenging.

Omueyaki said, “The hustle here has been hectic, but again, I was mentally ready for it before leaving Nigeria. Money is a problem, especially with how the naira is at the moment.

“It’s been a huge struggle, but we’re optimistic that this phase will go away soon enough.”

He also noted that taxes in his part of town were quite high, adding that there was no room for cutting corners abroad.

He noted, “Taxes are not something you can escape. You pay 13 per cent tax here on literally everything, although the tax rates differ from province to province.

“As for forex, the Nigerian government has a lot of work to do. Honestly, I don’t see a single ray of hope anywhere. As of this time last year, the Canadian dollar was exchanging for around N300. Today, it’s exchanging for around N930. That tells you that there is a plague in the land.”

He advised people who were aiming to come to Canada to ensure that they were financially ready, adding, “It is a financially demanding task.”

Omueyaki stated, “Lower your expectations. Use the analogy of a tree that gets rooted from point ‘A’ and replanted in point ‘B’ as a guide.

“It doesn’t just take off and continues yielding fruit in point ‘B’. It undergoes processes, sheds off its leaves, dries up, takes time to re-root itself into the new environment and then begins to blossom afterward. That’s exactly the mindset anyone looking to relocate should have.”

Travelling back

Christmas is a time to show love, give gifts and be merry; and what better way than to share it with family and friends?

With the wave of migration of many Nigerians to foreign lands, many would have to spend Christmas in the Diaspora for the first time.

The International Organisation for Migration disclosed on Monday that more Nigerians had migrated abroad this year.

The IOM Chief of Mission in Nigeria, Mr Laurent De Boeck, disclosed this during a media parley in Abuja.

According to him, no fewer than 260,000 Nigerians approached the organisation for assistance to leave the country in 2023.

De Boeck stated, “This 2023 number is the highest number we have ever had. We know now that those people have requested visas, but they did it regularly, which is positive.

“The UK is the number one destination for those 260,000, who came to us. It represents 80 per cent. The rest are the United States, Canada, Australia and some other European countries.”

De Boeck said the IOM was in a discussion with Italy, which had expressed an interest in developing regular pathways for qualified Nigerians who could fill up certain positions in the country.

He added that there were plans for discussions with Spain, Belgium, France and other countries as well.

The IOM chief, however, predicted a decrease in the number of Nigerians leaving for America and Europe in 2024 as a result of strict policies being adopted by some countries.

The current net migration rate for Nigeria in 2023, according to Macroeconomics, a statistics tool that monitors economic trends, is -0.273 per 1,000 population, a 2.5 per cent decline from 2022.

The net migration rate for Nigeria in 2022 was -0.280 per 1000 population, a 2.78 per cent decline from 2021.

The net migration rate for Nigeria in 2021 was -0.288 per 1,000 population, a 2.37 per cent decline from

The net migration rate for the country in 2020 was – 0.295 per 1,000 population, a 2.64 per cent decline from 2019.

Statsmetrics, an online portal, noted that Nigerians who moved abroad might experience some strings of social and emotional challenges, ranging from loneliness to cultural challenges, most especially during festivities.

It encouraged Nigerians to be open to new friendships, forming online bonds with their family back home and making sure they maintain a firm bridge with their mental health.

Many Nigerians in the Diaspora, who spoke to our correspondent, expressed the need to be around their families and friends in the festive season, but noted that the cost of air tickets had made them rethink the decision.

Joseph Oni, who moved to the United States of America in July and will be spending his first Christmas alone, said he would rather send money home than waste scarce foreign exchange to book a two-way ticket back home.

He stated, “I have done the calculations. In 2021, I would have spent around say N2.5m to N3m to do all that, but now, I am not sure that would cut it. I have transferred some money home to my siblings to give to my mother to celebrate the season.

“It gets lonely here, as I am in New Jersey, a North-Eastern US state some 130 miles off the Atlantic Coast, and it gets really cold sometimes, but I have no choice. On Christmas day, I will join a church service online and call my mother and siblings via video call to wish them a merry Christmas.”

Oni said he intends to do this till he is comfortable enough to make trips to and fro the states and not break the bank.

‘Sometimes, I cry’

Another Nigerian in the US, Peju (surname withheld), said she sometimes sits in her room and cries because of how lonely it gets.

She said, “I left around June this year, and I can tell you that I have not had any family member or friend visit my home. It has just been me going to work, doing my laundry, buying and cooking my food, and just living like I have no family. The loneliness can get so overwhelming sometimes.

“This Christmas, I have decided to join many online carol services and concerts. I miss the Davido, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Asake Christmas concerts. Watching online can never be the same, and this will be my first Christmas away from home. I miss my mother and father so much. I just want to see them again,” she said in a WhatsApp conversation with our correspondent.

‘I couldn’t take it’

Another Nigerian in the UK, who gave her name only as Tolu, said it took her three years to finally get to the country.

“I was practically struggling to get the basic things from life, and I decided that it was time for me to leave. Even getting my passport was stressful,” she said.

Tolu said she misses the warmth of her family and wishes she could get that during the festivity.

“I had a sense of family in Nigeria. Here, I am just starting again. I miss the sense of belonging. At times, it gets lonely but it is an opportunity for personal growth, and I hope it gets better over time,” she added.

Create new bonds – Sociologist, psychologist

A sociologist, Mr Martins Onyeka, asked Nigerians who will be celebrating their first Christmas abroad to seek new bonds with other Nigerians in their respective cities of residence.

This, according to him, will give them a feeling of home.

Onyeka stated, “Staying away from family during festivities has its downsides, but for people abroad who cannot afford to travel, they need to strengthen their immediate bonds with the people they can see who are also familiar with their cultures.

“They can organise small parties, sleepovers and carol nights just like in Nigeria. It will help them have a feel of what they are missing back home.”

A senior psychologist with the Remz Institute, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Mr Usen Essien, said staying alone and having a sense of loneliness could impact the overall welfare of the lives of Nigerians in the Diaspora.

He added, “When one’s body is already used to a routine of celebration and winding down in December, it may take a while to re-programme the body to behave otherwise.

“I will advise those compatriots who are going to be spending Christmas away from Nigeria for the first time to maintain a firm connection with Nigerians wherever they are, watch Nigerian Christmas content, and films, and make new connections in their immediate environment.”

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