In a side room at the American University of Nigeria, four girls chat and giggle. One teenage girl in particular catches our attention. She looks familiar. Then we realize why.
We met her just a few weeks after Boko Haram had attacked her school and abducted almost 300 students. As the Boko Haram trucks carrying them began to speed away to the militants’ territory, she and her friend bravely jumped, barely escaping with their lives. She was one of the lucky ones.
School, she says, from that day on became a reminder of what almost happened. A place she never wanted to return.
But now she is back and the change in her is remarkable. She dreams of remaining in the classroom as a teacher, so that just like her tutors, she can influence and inspire young minds.
Studying with her here are 21 other girls from Chibok. They, too, escaped Boko Haram. Like hundreds of others across Nigeria’s North East, they were targeted simply for going to school. Choosing to go back to class is a statement of their courage and focus on education, which they hope will bring change back home.
“My people need my support,” one girl says. “And me going to school will make that change,”
She wants to be a surgeon. In a part of the world often lacking the most basic health care infrastructure, she has chosen to bring value to her community. One of three students we spoke to who want to study medicine, she’s extraordinarily focused and firm in her responses. It is hard to imagine sitting with her now what she and the other girls have been through at Boko Haram’s hands, what they almost lost.
Some questions, though, they can’t answer: any questions about the night of the attack, any reference to the friends still missing. These are too hard.
Enrolled on scholarships at the university, these girls are the lucky ones, and they know it. There are 46 other Chibok girls who also escaped Boko Haram, but there are no funds available to pay for their education.
Dr. Margee Ensign, the school’s vice-chancellor, is hoping to change that by raising funds through the university’s foundation.
“The world paid, and rightly so, a lot of attention to the close to 300 that were kidnapped,” she says.
“We heard through various people that some had escaped that night and when it came to our attention that about a dozen wanted to come to AUN, we thought, we can do that!”
She did more than just raise the funds. When the parents agreed to release their girls into her care, she and her security director traveled — just the two of them — to the outskirts of Chibok to go and get the girls, in spite of the insecurity.
Specter of Boko Haram
Even on campus, though, the specter of Boko Haram is never far away. The American University is in Adamawa state, one of the states in North East Nigeria that is under a state of emergency. This calls for constant vigilance at the school: Cars are searched by hand and guards and sniffer dogs are on constant patrol.
For the girls, to remain in school, they must draw upon all their reserves of courage.
It is a reality these extraordinarily self-possessed young ladies softly acknowledge.
When I ask how it is they are able to persevere, one girl says with a slight smile, “I’m very brave and determined.”
She really is. All the girls are. But they’re hoping a day will come when they won’t have to be.