Trafficked to Play, Then Forgotten

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In the summer of 2011, Alley Ene would sneak out of the bungalow where he was staying in Jackson, Miss., to buy bread at a local convenience store. The Nigerian would wait until 11 p.m., when he could be sure his host family was asleep, to make his nocturnal trek. Ene was 17 at the time. Back at the house, there were two younger African teenagers waiting for him. All three of them had arrived in Mississippi weeks before with dreams of being groomed for college basketball scholarships. Instead, they were sleeping on the floor of a living room with one pillow shared between them. Meals were mostly limited to occasional fast food runs. Given they were playing intensive basketball every day, that left them hungry.

"I had to take those risks to fill our stomachs," Ene said.

The day Ene arrived in June 2011, he and the other two boys were sent to play basketball for Omhar Carter's NBA Hoops Elite, which is considered the best youth basketball team in the state. NBA Hoops Elite is part of the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU. Teams in the federation operate year round, showcasing children as young as 6. Virtually every NBA star—including the last two MVPs, Kevin Durant and LeBron James—played for AAU teams. Ene was thrilled.

"We came with smiles on our faces," he said. "It was America. What could go wrong?"

As it turned out, a lot did.

Ene had come to the sport of basketball late, at 15, but he managed to make both the Under 16 and Under 18 Nigerian national basketball teams. Through a teammate he heard about a scout named Sam Greer, who was helping Africans land basketball scholarships. Ene reached out to Greer, who asked to see clips of him playing. He also asked the 6-foot-3-inch Nigerian if he knew of other, taller players. Ene said he knew two—“Max” (6 feet, 8 inches) and “Collins” (6 feet, 9 inches), whom he had met at the park. Greer scooped them up as well. He sent all three the paperwork they would need for their visas.

Things were tough for Ene and the other boys in Mississippi right from the beginning. It wasn't just the lack of food or the substandard living conditions. At the Embassy in Nigeria, Ene had been warned by consular officers to register at the school that had supplied the paperwork for his visa as soon as he arrived. But a few weeks into his stay, Carter hadn’t taken them there. But he had taken possession of the boys' passports.

Ene eventually called Sam Greer. “Get us out,” he said, “or I’ll go to the police.”

The scout counseled against involving outside authorities and said he would settle things with Carter. Within a week, Carter returned the passports and drove the boys to Corinth High School. They toured the facilities and played for the coach, but were never formally enrolled.

Carter has a very different view of these events. He said he housed the boys for most of their stay and that they were well cared for. He attributed Ene’s disgruntlement to the role he’d been forced to assume. It was Greer, Carter told me, who had presented Ene as a kind of uncle — the caretaker of the two younger, taller, more desirable recruits.

“No one wanted him,” Carter said. “It was a package deal.”

A few days after the visit to Corinth, Greer removed the boys from Carter’s care and sent them to live with a coach in Arkansas. According to Ene, it was an upgrade: they were fed and had their own beds. The youngest Nigerians landed spots on Team Penny, one of the best AAU programs in the South. Their host parent took an assistant-coaching position with the team and began driving the boys to and from Memphis on the weekends for practice and tournaments.

Soon, though, the boys received stunning news: because they had never been registered at Corinth High School, they were in the United States illegally. Being undocumented was particularly troublesome for Ene. He was on the verge of graduating from high school in Arkansas, but as a foreign student, he would have a lot of trouble applying for financial aid to attend college. He had no idea what to do next.

A relative in New York City offered him a room and he seized the opportunity. He took a Greyhound bus to Queens.

Back in Arkansas, the other boys’ relationships with their host families deteriorated, then became openly hostile. An anonymous tip to the National Human Trafficking Center led agents from the Department of Homeland Security to visit the home where the boys were staying on Jan. 1, 2013. They were transferred to a shelter for immigrant youth in Chicago and are now in foster care in Michigan.

When asked why things had gone so differently from what he and the boys had been promised, Ene said he thought it had to do with their performance on the basketball court. “They weren’t getting what they expected to see from us,” he said. “Maybe that’s why things changed a little bit at the end.”

Going to New York City did not put Ene on safe ground. After a few months, his relative’s landlord pointed out he wasn’t listed on the lease and said he would have to move out. The day he packed his bags he found the non-profit African Services Committee on the web and went to their offices. Jessica Greenberg, an attorney with the organization, phoned non-profits to find a bed for Ene. None could take him. The then-19-year-old would have to spend the night at a men’s shelter.

He returned the next morning with a shell-shocked look on his face. Attorneys at African Services were eventually able to place him at Covenant House, a center for homeless youth. And within a few months, African Services lawyer Kate Webster had managed to legalize his status.

Webster sees a lot of trafficking cases in her practice and she thinks that’s what happened to Ene. He was trafficked.  “You know, when Alley started telling his story to me, I wouldn’t have immediately thought, 'human trafficking.' And then all of these elements started popping up. And I sat here and I thought, this is a kid that was trafficked to the United States. And he was exploited so that his coaches could earn money, literally off his back, while he played ball."

In June 2014, Ene arranged for another Nigerian basketball player whom he knew from pickup games in Nigeria to live at Covenant House. Through the boy’s Facebook posts, Ene learned that he had been brought over by a coach in Georgia. Upon arrival, the player had discovered he would not be placed with a host family. Instead, he spent months sleeping in a poorly-ventilated gym.

That yet another Nigerian had been coaxed to the United States with false assurances riled Ene. “It’s like modern slavery,” he said. “It’s not slavery where they put a chain on your hand or your neck. But it’s people trying to use you.”

Ene is now working as a security guard in Queens. He’s trying to save money for college. He no longer harbors dreams of having his education underwritten by a basketball scholarship. “I still like the game,” he said. “But it’s a dirty business. I don’t want to get involved in it again.”

Alexandra Starr reported this story as an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation. 

The Ford Foundation provided financial support through a travel grant.  

A print version of this story appears in the April issue of Harpers Magazine.