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Seven Texas children abandoned in Africa

Friday, August 20, 2004

IBADAN, Nigeria -- Allegedly abandoned by their American mother in Africa as she took up military contract work in Iraq, seven children from Texas begged small change to buy food and shuttled from a neglectful stranger's care to a concrete-block orphanage, Nigerians said Thursday.

Eventually, the children proved their American citizenship to a passing missionary from Texas by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," and he notified U.S. authorities, who got the youngsters home last week.

Ages 7 to 16, the three boys and four girls apparently spent 10 months in Nigeria. They didn't arrive at their last stop -- the government orphanage in this market city of millions bustling with traders and crippled and leprous beggars -- until a few weeks ago.

By then, they were skinny, mosquito-bitten and suffering from malnutrition, malaria and typhoid, Nigerians said.

"Three of them were sick. They could not walk," said a 23-year-old who gave his name as Alex and is a former ward of the orphanage now living there as a student. "They looked tired. They'd been sick for long, without food."

U.S. authorities believe the seven American children arrived in Nigeria last October with their adoptive mother, whose fiance has a relative here. The mother left within weeks, and is now under investigation by Texas welfare officials.

Left with businessman

Government workers and others who knew the children said she left them in the care of a businessman, Obiora Nwankwo, who has a well-tended, two-story house in an affluent neighborhood of Ibadan.

Nwankwo drove up to the gates of an Ibadan Montessori School on Oct. 16, school officials said. He enrolled the children in classes with what officials here said was benefit money from the children's mother, Mercury Liggins.

Their new school was clean, fronted by a row of tall palm trees, and the children seemed happy at first.

But when the children returned from Nwankwo's home after Christmas break, they appeared underfed and neglected, said Victoria Mustafa, matron of the girls' boarding quarters. "They were very pale and had lost weight," she said.

The children began begging classmates and staff for money, using it to buy food.

The matron also remembered Brandy, the eldest at 16, talking longingly about America, her Houston high school, and home. "Brandy would talk about the school where she was, how she loved it."

Then Nwankwo began missing payments to the school, and he complained that staff were being too nosey about the children, Akintayo said.

By July 22, all seven children had stopped attending.

Six days later, Ibadan's Association of Women Lawyers alerted local immigration authorities about the children, a social welfare official said, and Nwankwo's home was raided the same day.

The seven were all malnourished. "Some of them were sick, critically ill," with typhoid and malaria, said the official, who agreed to talk about the case only on condition of anonymity.

Four were sick enough to be hospitalized, but eventually joined their siblings at the orphanage, the official said.

But Nigerian officials did not notify the U.S. Embassy, the official said, saying that was because the case was a sensitive matter diplomatically.

The Texan children were fed better than the Nigerian wards at the orphanage, said another adult student living at the orphanage who gave his name as Brahim. "Some of them do not eat well," he said of the Nigerian orphans.

At the orphanage, the seven passed their time playing board games or cadging a staff member's mobile phone to play the games on it. "They were happy," said Brahim, who would play with the Americans.

Their extraordinary ordeal ended only with the chance visit of an American missionary to the orphanage.

Swarmed by children claiming to be from Texas, too, missionary Warren Beemer quizzed the brothers and sisters about the roster of the Houston Rockets basketball team as a test, according to an account from his church in San Antonio.

Ultimately, Beemer launched into the American national anthem. Placing their hands on their hearts, the children joined in -- singing out "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the grass-and-dirt yard of the orphanage.

Convinced, Beemer contacted officials in the United States, and the children were returned home Aug. 13 and put in the care of foster parents in Houston.

Alex, the student, said he exchanged e-mail addresses with two of the children, 16-year-old Brandy and 12-year-old Alice, as U.S. Embassy staffers ushered them out of the orphanage.

"They were very happy," he said. "But they were even crying when they were leaving, because we had got so used to each other."


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