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FOR YEARS, TOYIN AYANGADE HAS been careful. She works early mornings and late evenings so she won’t have to drive past bustling parks and playgrounds. She stays in on holidays so she won’t have to dodge trick-or-treaters or see the columns of smoke rising from backyard family barbecues. Even in Walmart, she hurries past the bulletin board of missing children and takes detours to avoid the racks of kids’ clothing and towering shelves of toys.
But today she has failed to notice the time on her dashboard clock—3:30. The end of the school day. And now, on this narrow residential stretch of 46th Street, her Jeep Grand Cherokee is inching up to the back bumper of a yellow bus. She doesn’t know the faces staring down at her through the back window. All she can see are the faces of the daughter and son she has lost. The bus stops, its red lights blaze, and the side door folds open. She is shaking. One by one they bound down the steps, scampering away with their book bags toward their moms and dads waiting at home. Then traffic lurches forward, to the next corner, where the entire scene is replayed. She is sweating. She jerks the wheel left to peek around and try to pass, but the only other lane is choked with oncoming cars.
She tries to look away. But in the rearview mirror she spots the blinker of another school bus, turning onto the road directly behind her. She is boxed in. Her heart is pounding. She leans on the wheel, slowly pulls to the side of the road, and waits for the thunder of the caravan to fade. Then she speeds back to her apartment.
In the parking lot of her building, Toyin finally kills the engine. She sits and weeps, sobbing to catch her breath before going inside.
TOYIN HAD BEEN LIVING ALONE FOR several years in apartments all over Indianapolis. But she had always stretched her meager budget to afford two bedrooms. She had to be ready.
In the second room, she kept twin beds, covers spread smooth and tucked in at the corners. On a shelf, a purple-haired fairy figurine and a wind-up Scooby-Doo. On a table against the wall, photos of a girl and a boy from infant to toddler, all bright eyes and toothless smiles. And in the center of the table, she had propped up a Mother’s Day card signed in her own script.
Toyin set up the space in preparation for the day her children would come home. But over three-and-a-half years, the room changed first from a necessity into a symbol of hope, and then into a painful reminder of a fast-fading past. In December 2005, Toyin had been part of a family—father, mother, daughter, and son. By New Year’s Day 2006, she was alone with no idea where her children were. And by the summer of 2009, Toyin had seen her son just four times in 40 months. She had not seen her daughter at all.
She had turned everywhere she could think of for aid and advice. Lawyers,
police, politicians, friends, and fellow congregants at the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Some had tried to help. Some had ignored her. And some had put their arms around her and gently suggested she let go and move on without them.
Move on? Her son and daughter were all she had. After they were taken, she crossed an ocean to find them. She pleaded her case in court and begged authorities to help her track them down and bring them home. Over the years, there were moments when she seemed on the verge of getting them back, only to have them suddenly snatched away. And there were other moments when she sat in the stillness of an unused bedroom and struggled to summon any hope at all.
But to give up? To let her children go? Toyin would never do that. To her, a mother simply couldn’t.
TOYIN MET SUNDAY AYANGADE IN Nigeria in late 1996. She was 22, a newly certified teacher who had put further studies on hold to help her mother peddle wares in a small college town. He was 20 years her elder, a distant friend of her family and a respiratory therapist who had established himself in the United States. The worldly and affluent Sunday impressed the young tailor’s daughter. “He seemed genuine,” Toyin says. “He called me on the day he got back to the U.S. He sent me cards and was constantly writing me letters.”
Sunday filled hours on the phone describing his life in Indiana. He painted a grand picture—from his house cluttered with stacks of books to the rapid pace of American life to the calm beauty of a Midwest winter snow. Toyin had never left Nigeria. When Sunday proposed to her during one long-distance conversation, she was quick to accept.
In June 1999, Toyin came to Indianapolis to live with Sunday in his northside house on Grandview Drive. They were married here in July. After their daughter, Atinuke, was born in March 2000, Toyin stayed at home with the child while Sunday worked long hours at the hospital. Toyin barely left the house. Sunday even did the grocery shopping, asking her to make lists of what she needed to cook. She had no money of her own. She could not afford the long-distance charges to regularly call her parents in Nigeria or her sisters who lived in London. She had no friends in Indiana. The home and the child were Toyin’s entire world. And in April 2002, that small world grew to include a son, Olamide.
But two years of being cooped up in a house with only infants and toddlers for conversation began to wear on Toyin. She became desperate for an escape, and her frustration became preamble to increasingly regular arguments with her husband. She convinced Sunday to help her enroll in classes, first at Ivy Tech and then at IUPUI. She drove herself to school. He kept track of her mileage.
School was Toyin’s first real foray into the America she had envisioned back in Nigeria. And she reveled in it. Every day, she would drop the children at daycare on her way into the city, to the downtown campus amid the bustling traffic and tall buildings where she met fascinating new classmates and professors and studied political science. She made the dean’s list.
In 2004, Toyin learned she was pregnant again. Already diabetic and suffering from exhaustion, she lost the child three months into term. The miscarriage widened the breach between Sunday and Toyin. In November 2004, after months of fighting, Sunday drove a defeated Toyin downtown to withdraw from her classes. He told her he wanted her to get a job. She eventually found a teaching spot at a downtown daycare that paid $7.65 an hour.
Still, Toyin held on to her goal of a degree. Finally, in late fall 2005, Sunday agreed to help Toyin reenroll at IUPUI for the following semester. But first, he wanted her to accompany him and the kids on a Christmas trip to Nigeria.
Toyin hadn’t been to Africa in six years. Her parents had never held their grandchildren. But she had hoped to return with a degree, something to show the friends she had left. When she expressed her reluctance, Sunday suggested he take the kids himself. To Toyin, that was not an option.
She started packing her bags and those of the children. She packed light. They would be gone for only a couple of weeks.
THE PLANE TOUCHED DOWN IN Lagos on December 14, 2005. Some of the family’s bags had been misdirected. Sunday’s older brother was waiting with a car to take the family to his home in Ibadan, a city two hours north. Toyin says now that the plan was for the family to spend a few days at the brother’s house before moving on to her small hometown of Ile-Ife, an hour-long drive east of Ibadan, to see her parents.
But after two days at the brother’s family compound, Toyin says, she began to feel unwelcome. “It was like I was a stranger,” she says. “Like Sunday didn’t even know me.” She told him that she wanted to go to Ile-Ife to see her parents. Sunday agreed, and said he would soon follow with the kids. Toyin didn’t feel like she was in a position to argue. The children cried a tearful goodbye and gave their mother their favorite toys—a purple-haired fairy and a wind-up Scooby-Doo. Toyin hugged her son and daughter and told them not to worry. She would see them in a couple of days.
In Ile-Ife, however, a couple of days passed without any sign of Sunday or the children. When Toyin called the brother’s house, the children were always busy or out with another member of Sunday’s family. After a week, Toyin had waited long enough. On December 23, she took her mother and her sister and drove back to Ibadan. “At least I expected to spend Christmas with my kids,” she says. She entered the brother’s
house and went to the children. She introduced them to their maternal grandmother for the first time.
Sunday entered. Toyin says he pulled the kids from her mother’s lap and told the women to get out.
Toyin refused. There was shouting.
Again, he told her to leave.
When she again refused, she says, Sunday pushed her out the door. Once outside, Toyin claims, the altercation got physical. She lost her wig and ran to the car with her mother and sister and drove away furious and confused, back to Ile-Ife.
Six days went by with nothing from Sunday or the children. Toyin didn’t know what was happening. Her world was collapsing around her. On December 29, Sunday called. He said he was at the airport retrieving the lost luggage. He told Toyin to come back to Ibadan the following day at 10 a.m. to pick up the kids so they could spend time in Ile-Ife before the family’s planned departure on January 2.
But when she arrived at the brother’s house, there were no children. One of Sunday’s relatives claimed they had gone to the zoo. Then a man Toyin didn’t know handed her an envelope containing Nigerian divorce papers and quickly left.
On the road back to Ile-Ife, Toyin says, she phoned the airline. They told her that the bags had been found and picked up, and that her family’s tickets aboard the January 2 jet to Chicago had been canceled. She thought back to Sunday’s phone call from the airport. He had left without her. She didn’t have her travel documents, her ticket, her passport. She was stranded. Sunday was gone. And she had no idea where her children were.
TOYIN COULD ONLY GUESS THAT the children had flown back with Sunday. But as long as she admitted the children were most likely with their father, the Ile-Ife police said they could do nothing. She borrowed some money from her family and hopped a short flight to Lagos, where she pleaded her case to the U.S. Consulate. She had no green card. No passport or visa. Even the tags on her luggage were in her husband’s name. She had no proof that she was a U.S. resident visiting Nigeria. The Americans told her that without documentation, they could not help.
By the second week of January, Toyin had run through the three-week supply of medi-
cation she had packed for her diabetes. Her blood sugar soared. A doctor prescribed medicine and rest. But Toyin had too much to do. Now that winter break was over back in Indianapolis, Toyin e-mailed her daughter’s school and found that Atinuke had indeed returned to class. But the administrator also informed her that Sunday had filed for a protective order barring Toyin from having any contact with her child.
Toyin had to get home.
She e-mailed the Indianapolis daycare where she worked and was able to obtain her U.S. alien registration number. She went to the airline and requested a copy of the manifest for her flight out of Chicago with her name on it. And she found a crumpled credit-card receipt from the Chicago airport where she had bought an Us Weekly for the transatlantic journey. With these scraps of information, Toyin finally convinced officials to issue her some new travel documents.
On February 5, 2006, after more than a month marooned in Africa, Toyin landed in Indianapolis. A friend drove her directly to the family’s home, where they found the windows dark, the house locked and apparently empty.
The next morning, Toyin filed for her own protective order. And on February 9, only four days after her return, Toyin stood in Marion Superior Court to face her husband. At that brief preliminary hearing, the judge granted Toyin parenting time with the children every other weekend until the matter could be sorted out.
That Friday, at 6 p.m., Toyin arrived at the main entrance of St. Vincent Hospital, where Sunday worked, and loaded her kids into the car. It was the first time she had seen them since Nigeria, nearly two months before. She took them back to her friend’s house, where they spent almost every minute of the two days together. Toyin combed and rebraided Atinuke’s hair. They lay around watching TV, simply enjoying being together. At one point, 3-year-old Olamide asked his mother where she had been all this time. She told him she had been “away,” but that she was back and would never leave him or his sister for that long ever again. When she returned them to their father, Toyin says, Atinuke was in tears. Olamide would not let go of her hand.
For the next two weeks, Toyin could think of nothing but her next weekend with the children. She would take them to a movie and then maybe McDonald’s on Saturday. Church on Sunday.
When the Friday came, at the stroke of 6 p.m., Toyin again pulled up to the hospital eager to savor every minute of their time together. She looked out her window at the tall entrance. But the sliding doors were still. There was no one there to greet her.
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, MARCH 3, 2006, when Toyin appeared at a scheduled court hearing, Sunday’s attorney had no explanation as to his client’s whereabouts or that of the children. The judge dismissed Sunday’s protective order against Toyin and extended her parenting time. But the decree had little effect. The children were gone.
Toyin was not about to quit. Since her protective order could only establish parenting time, she filed for divorce in Marion Superior Court, hoping to press the issue of permanent child custody. Sunday responded in court, claiming that he and Toyin had been wed in Nigeria in 1998. That union, he said, superceded their 1999 Indiana
marriage, which was “for mere convenience of immigration matters.” He then submitted documents purportedly issued by a Nigerian court, dated March 2006, that
dissolved their African marriage, claimed that it was Toyin who abandoned him and the children in Nigeria, and awarded him full custody. He asserted that Marion County had no jurisdiction in the matter.
Toyin denied ever marrying Sunday in Nigeria and decried the foreign documents as fraudulent. But the court sided with Sunday. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction in November 2006.
Toyin could not afford an attorney to push the matter further. Pro bono organizations turned her away. She went to the Indianapolis police and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, but they would not do anything. She phoned the U.S. State Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., to no avail. By the end of 2006, she hadn’t seen her children in nearly 11 months.
Meanwhile, the extra room in her apartment remained empty. She worked two jobs, knowing that when she found her children, she would need to show she had the means to care for them. Besides, she was frantic to find things to keep her mind from dwelling on the two gaping voids in her life. During the day, Toyin drove around the city as a healthcare attendant, assisting the sick and elderly in their homes. Then she pulled an overnight shift on the assembly line at a Plainfield software factory.
One night, sealing packages on the assembly line, her mind began to drift to the children. Packages piled up. The supervisor berated her for being slow, and in front of an entire floor of coworkers, he handed Toyin a broom and sent her away. Humiliated, she ran outside. With both hands, she propped herself up on the wooden broom handle and spoke through tears to her absent son and daughter: “I’m doing this for you! I’m doing this for you!”
Then she sobbed and turned to the sky. “I will do anything,” she vowed. “I will sweep floors. I will sleep in my car. Just please, God, let them come back.”
BY AUGUST 2007, 18 MONTHS HAD passed since Toyin’s weekend visit with her kids. She had heard nothing from them since. Atinuke would be about to enter the second grade by now. Olamide would be starting kindergarten. But Toyin couldn’t find them. They could have been anywhere. Nigeria? Somewhere else in the U.S.? She had no way of knowing.
Then, in mid-August, Toyin received a stack of mail forwarded from her old Grandview Drive residence. One of the letters was addressed to “S. Ayangade.” She opened it. Inside she found a bill for dental services for Olamide. The dentist’s office was in Portage, Indiana. The statement was for an appointment on August 7.
The invoice seemed to be a godsend. Here was proof that her son had been in the country, in the state, only miles away, just days ago. Maybe he was still there. Toyin rushed the bill to a Carmel lawyer, Maureen Keefe, who immediately filed a slew of motions requesting that Marion Superior Court take another look at Toyin’s case and reestablish her parenting time. This time, the court listened.
Ten days later, Sunday was summoned to court. Olamide was with him. Because the boy currently resided in Indiana, the judge granted visitation to Toyin for an hour every Wednesday until further evidence could be heard. The judge made Sunday promise that neither he nor his son would leave the Indianapolis area.
The following Wednesday, at precisely 7 p.m., Toyin was waiting in her Jeep at Northwestway Park on West 62nd Street. Sunday arrived and let Olamide out of his car. The 5-year-old ran to Toyin and gave her a hug. The last time she had seen him, he was 3. He was taller. Yet he seemed thinner, almost fragile. When she tried to talk to him, he was shy, remote. When he did speak, he refused to call her “Mom.” After a few awkward moments, she let him run off to swing with the other children on the playground. She stood back and watched until the hour ran out.
At their next meeting, Olamide started to open up. He talked about going to school in Nigeria, riding a different bus than his sister. Toyin asked about Atinuke, how she was doing and if she ever asked about her mother. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes she says she wonders where Mommy is.”
As weeks passed, the pair continued their hour-long playground visits. Toyin kept a journal. She wrote that he seemed more comfortable around her. They played on the swings and talked. He still would not address her as “Mom.” When Toyin tried to explain what had happened, why she hadn’t been in his life the past year-and-a-half, she broke down. The child tried to console her. “I think I just have to be strong,” he said. She could not help but laugh.
On Wednesday, September 26, Toyin and Keefe arrived in Marion Superior Court determined to persuade the judge to expand Toyin’s time with Olamide and get Atinuke back in the country. But Sunday was not there to rebut.
With her husband missing, Toyin had no reason to expect to see her son that evening. But at 7 p.m., she returned to the park anyway. From her Grand Cherokee, she watched as parents pushed their children on the swings. She could hear them laughing. She sat there for 30 minutes. Then she went back to the quiet apartment.
ONCE AGAIN, TOYIN WAS LEFT alone. She feared that, despite his promises,
Sunday had taken her son and fled the country. But again, she had no proof. And this time, with authorities on the lookout, she felt that Sunday was unlikely to bring the kids anywhere near Indianapolis.
But Keefe had come to share her client’s resilience. She stayed on the case, pro bono, and worked to enlist law enforcement in finding the Ayangade children. When she contacted the missing persons branch of the Indianapolis Police Department and the FBI, she sometimes opened with a plea: “Just hear me out.”
They did. Soon the FBI began looking into Sunday’s travel records. A pattern quickly emerged.
Travel logs revealed that Sunday and the kids had first returned to the U.S. from Nigeria on December 30, 2005—the very day Toyin had shown up at the Ibadan house to pick them up. The three had flown to London on February 13, 2006—the day after Toyin had dropped the children at the hospital following her weekend visitation. And most recently, Sunday had flown from New York to Nigeria with Olamide on September 25, 2007—the day before Toyin was left waiting at the park. The boy had flown on a one-way ticket, while Sunday returned to the U.S. alone just four days later.
Every time Toyin was about to reunite with her children, her husband had been able to pluck them from her grasp.
On October 15, 2007, FBI Special Agent David Crawford filed a criminal complaint against Sunday in U.S. District Court claiming that the two most recent flights with the children each constituted one count of international parental kidnapping. The next day, Sunday was arrested in Indianapolis.
But the fight was far from over. The
children had been living in Nigeria with Sunday’s brother in a guardianship
purportedly set up under local law, and each time the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office tried to arrange for their return, negotiations fell apart. Due to Sunday’s
incarceration, a Marion County judge granted Toyin sole custody of the children—but they were still 6,000 miles away. Seasons passed. Finally, in September 2008, 11 months after his arrest, Sunday agreed to plead guilty to the second kidnapping charge for the 2007 flight with Olamide. (Count 1 would be dismissed.)
Through his current attorney, Sunday declined to be interviewed for this story. But at his sentencing in December 2008, he apologized for breaking the law and said he was only doing what he thought best for his son. His attorney told the court that Sunday did not think it was right that the mother hadn’t seen her children.
With Toyin present, Judge Sarah Evans Barker pressed the point. “What’s so seriously amiss here, Mr. Ayangade, is that you’ve put [the children] beyond the reach of their mother … and in the course of it … you say that you don’t know if you could get them back from your brother after you created a guardianship. But what you don’t understand is that United States law creates a guardianship for the children when the mother is alive and has her own interest. You can’t give that right away.”
Judge Barker sentenced Sunday to two years in prison. But the harsh punishment offered little comfort to the mother.
TOYIN’S PERSISTENCE IN HER pursuit had spread to the FBI, particularly agent Crawford. And in late June 2009, after a series of starts and stops, Crawford finally convinced Sunday’s brother to hand over the children. Within a couple of days, Toyin’s parents picked up the kids from their Nigerian school. They were safe, in friendly hands, waiting for their mother to come get them. Crawford had to yank the phone away from his ear to spare his eardrum from Toyin’s screams of elation when she called.
Crawford tried to calm Toyin and lay out the logistics. They were not home yet.
As tenuous as the situation had been over the past year, Crawford knew they had to act quickly. He and Sarah Abdullah, an FBI victim specialist, would accompany Toyin on a flight from Indy to Atlanta to Lagos, where they would meet Toyin’s parents, pick up the children, and fly out. There would be only seven hours between arrival and departure in Nigeria—just enough time to get the kids and get out. They would not leave the airport. “We were going into a foreign country,” says Crawford. “We couldn’t just go anywhere we wanted.”
The plane left Indy on July 1, 2009. Toyin packed new clothes for the children—jeans, shorts, hoodies, and sneakers she could only hope would fit. She gathered photos and books and games for the kids for the 14-hour ride back. And she brought along the purple-haired fairy and the wind-up Scooby-Doo that they had given her in Nigeria when they were 5 and 3 years old. Now they were 9 and 7.
When the plane landed in Lagos, Toyin rushed ahead to the passenger dropoff
just outside the main terminal. She frantically scanned the sea of people. She spotted
her mother’s green African headdress. Beside the older woman was a tall, thin girl dressed in a flowered blue-and-pink gown and matching headdress and a smaller, gaunt boy wearing a gray suit four or five inches too short. It was the first time Toyin had seen her children together in more than a thousand days. She ran to them, scooped them up in her arms, and released a guttural roar that seemed to bellow from deep within her. “It was like a lioness,” says Abdullah. “Protective and fierce.”
At first, the children seemed overwhelmed. They were quiet, their faces petrified. That changed the instant Toyin took them inside and dressed them in the casual clothes she had brought. Suddenly, they were kids, playing and dashing around the airport cafe. In fact, when the boy got a little too rambunctious, Toyin immediately corrected him.
As their departure time neared, the five made their way to customs. But officials immediately stopped the group.
Why are you taking these children out of the country without their father?
As she had done so many times over the past three-and-a-half years, this time with Abdullah’s help, Toyin recounted her story. About being stranded in Nigeria. Fighting her way back to the U.S. Battling with the father in court for custody. The FBI’s involvement, and Sunday’s conviction and incarceration.
When she was through, the customs official walked off with their passports. Minutes passed before he returned.
He stamped the passports, shook their hands, and sent them on their way.
As the plane sped down the runway, finally losing touch with African soil, the wheels rumbled back into the fuselage. Toyin leaned back in her seat and let relief wash over her. She could look over at her son and her daughter, touch their faces, hold their hands. She was in the air over an ocean, 6,000 miles from her Indiana
apartment. But Toyin was finally home.
TOYIN SITS AT A TABLE IN THE front of the courtroom, long braids pulled back, wearing a sleek gray suit and golden hoops that swing from her ears as she gazes nervously around. The gallery is packed with people whose excited whispers and quiet conversations blend into a hum of anticipation. She looks for her children.
When the judge enters, Toyin and those gathered rise to their feet, and as everyone sits down, she finally spots her daughter sitting beside Abdullah, and her son, legs pretzeled, on a bench beside Keefe. Seeing them steadies her nerves.
Toyin stands, raises her right hand, and speaks at the judge’s prompt.
“I, Oluwatoyin Ayangade …,” she swallows the lump in her throat, “ … hereby declare, on oath, ... that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America …”
It is July 22, 2010, four-and-a-half years after she was stranded in Nigeria without proof that she had ever lived in the United States. Today in Indianapolis, Toyin is
taking the oath to become a U.S. citizen.
When the ceremony adjourns, she makes her way through 66 other new citizens and their families to the back of the courtroom, where her friends have congregated. Abdullah brings Toyin’s daughter to congratulate her mother, then does the same herself, passing on agent Crawford’s regret for not being able to attend. Keefe comes over with Toyin’s son, offering a hug.
The group moves back to Toyin’s apartment for deep-dish pizza and soda. The children immediately run to their room to grab their toys, bolting past walls of kids’ photos that have been updated over the past year with the smiling faces of a 10- and an 8-year-old. The children’s bedroom is tidy but lived-in, the closet doors not quite closed, the covers rumpled, as if a child’s hand had made the beds.
For the first few nights back in the U.S., Toyin says, both children curled up with her in her bed. They told their mother that while in Nigeria, they had slept together in a living room. They said they had been ordered to fill up on water before they sat down to eat. They were rail-thin, apparently malnourished. They showed scars and said they had been beaten. Now, as Olamide takes his Spider-Man action figure and plops on the floor to watch SpongeBob, and Atinuke breaks out a board game designed to teach kids how to count U.S. currency, they appear healthy and carefree.
A mother is never carefree. Three weeks ago, Toyin’s divorce was finalized—full custody of the children being granted to her, no parenting time for him. (Sunday has since appealed the decision.) Toyin has cut back to working just one job, making sure she’s home in the mornings to get the kids dressed and drop them off at school and then off early enough to pick them up. But even supplemented with child support, her paltry wages are stretched to cover costs, bills, clothes, and daycare in the summer. She hopes to someday return to school to complete her degree if she can just find the money and the time.
But right now, those worries seem an ocean away. The pizza is here. Atinuke and Olamide leap from their games and rush to the table. Toyin hands them each a plate and a napkin and asks them what they want to drink. It’s a family dinner. Time to celebrate.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.
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