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Why Captured Chibok Schoolgirls Can't Always Go Home Again


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, second from right, receives Amina Ali, the rescued Chibok schoolgirl, at the presidential palace in Abuja, May 19, 2016.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, second from right, receives Amina Ali, the rescued Chibok schoolgirl, at the presidential palace in Abuja, May 19, 2016.

This week, 24 young women got a welcome distraction from studying for finals. Summoned to a common room at American University of Nigeria, they were told that a Chibok girl had been found in Borno state’s Sambisa Forest. "That’s Amina! Amina!" they shouted, exuberant, as a TV newscast showed her image.

It had been more than two years since they’d seen Amina Ali, discovered Tuesday with a baby and a suspected militant who claimed to be her husband. Like her, they were among 276 girls initially snatched by Boko Haram fighters from their school dormitory one night in April 2014, herded onto trucks and driven off from buildings set aflame. Unlike her, they’d escaped within months.

Now they’re far along in a transition just beginning for Ali and another possible Chibok girl. Generally, experts say, the longer the captivity and the harsher the conditions, the more difficult the readjustment — for the girls, their families and societies.

"The whole story was traumatizing, not only for the kids but [also] for those from whom they were taken," said Dubravka Suzic, a psychologist and administrator for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Education, and re-education, are important for everyone concerned.

American University of Nigeria is in Yola, approximately four hours south of Chibok by car.

American University of Nigeria is in Yola, approximately four hours south of Chibok by car.

On the AUN campus in eastern Adamawa state, "we don’t call them the Chibok girls," said Reginald Braggs, an assistant dean. Instead, the 24 are known as students of the New Foundation School, a college prep initiative launched for them in August 2014.

The students, ages 17 to 19, receive full scholarships covering tuition, room and board, books and laptops. Their intensive academics encompass math, science and the arts. They have Friday pizza nights and weekend karaoke sessions. They also have ready access to a trauma counselor.

Should Amina Ali want to return to school, she’ll have a place at AUN.

"We are willing to take ANY Chibok student who is rescued and have full scholarships for them," the university’s president, Margee Ensign, said in an email.

The offer challenges Boko Haram, roughly translated from the Hausa language as "Western education is a sin."

Counseling needed

Nearly seven years of fighting the insurgency has claimed at least 20,000 lives and forced at least 2.4 million out of their homes in the Lake Chad basin. Boko Haram militants also are believed to hold thousands of captives.

Aside from any physical violence, detainees can experience depression and psychological trauma, UNHCR’s Suzic said. Freedom doesn't necessarily end their trials.

As they go back to their homes or to refugee camps, many former captives "face marginalization, discrimination and rejection by family and community members due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. There is also the growing fear that some of these girls and women were radicalized in captivity," a recent UNICEF report said. The belief that any child conceived with a fighter carries the father’s violent traits means those children "are at an even greater risk of rejection, abandonment and violence."

Former captives need medical care, but they and their families also need counseling for successful reintegration, Suzic said.

"The challenge first of all is for [former captives] to make peace" with their experience, Suzic said. That will determine whether "they come out as survivors or victims. … Is society going to be willing to turn the page?"

She said some ex-captives might channel their experience into advocacy but questioned whether the culture allowed "space for an activist woman there."

FILE - Women and children rescued by Nigeria soldiers from Islamist extremists at Sambisa forest arrive at a camp in Yola, Nigeria, May 2, 2015.

FILE - Women and children rescued by Nigeria soldiers from Islamist extremists at Sambisa forest arrive at a camp in Yola, Nigeria, May 2, 2015.

Teaching leaders

Governments, religious leaders and others need to set the right tone in receiving former hostages, Suzic added. She urged working with "those who set the norms" to show support for returning females. "That is extremely, extremely important."

Some Chibok parents and advocates accuse the government of displaying teenager Ali with President Muhammadu Buhari for political gain while giving secondary concern to her medical and psychological care.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. support in the fight against Boko Haram includes training "to be respectful of civilians’ human rights." He said the United States was "partnering with Nigeria to be helpful in continuing efforts to locate and free these hostages."

The U.S. — with Britain, France and the European Union — is providing advisers, sharing intelligence and providing logistical support and equipment to Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin, he said. It has spent $71 million on that alone, as part of a broader aid package.

He and another State official emphasized that military action is only one aspect of countering terrorism. It requires addressing "the underlying drivers of the conflict" — poverty, corruption and hopelessness — ensuring security, "establishing rule of law and effective governance, promoting economic growth and job creation."

That’s where education comes in, said AUN’s Braggs. Its New Foundation School students are training for careers in biology, teaching, banking and more.

"At the New Foundation School, you’re talking about people who’ve been kidnapped … turned their lives around," Braggs said. Its young women are
"on the path to fulfilling the dream of getting a college education, and of going back to their hometown as valued assets."

At American University of Nigeria, a college prep initiative supports some of the former Chibok students who escaped Boko Haram within months of their capture. (Courtesy American University of Nigeria)

At American University of Nigeria, a college prep initiative supports some of the former Chibok students who escaped Boko Haram within months of their capture. (Courtesy American University of Nigeria)

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