YOLA, NIGERIA - Some hid, some jumped from the beds of trucks and others simply ran as Boko Haram insurgents burned down their school and kidnapped over 200 of their classmates in the Borno state town of Chibok, Nigeria, last April.
While 57 schoolgirls managed to escape, 219 of their classmates are still missing. They haven’t been heard from since.
The escapees from the raid sat idle in Chibok after the attack, their school torched by the insurgents, who have targeted educational institutions in their campaign to impose strict Sharia law in northern Nigeria.
The remaining schoolgirls had few options for education. Then the American University of Nigeria stepped in.
Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria in Yola, was approached by one of her security guards whose relative had escaped captivity. Ensign knew she had to help. Twenty-one of the girls are now studying at the university in Yola, the capital of neighboring Adamawa state.
They’re completing a program that will allow them to finish their secondary school studies and, if they choose, go on to enroll in the university, Ensign said.
“That really is the university’s mission, to be a development university and try and improve the community and region around us. It’s why we took them in, and are giving scholarships to them, because they’re probably among the most vulnerable young people in our region," she said. "They’ve been through a horrible experience. And in spite of that experience, or because of it, they’re more determined that almost any students I’ve ever worked with.”
The kidnapping of the girls focused worldwide attention on Boko Haram, and on the plight of people in Nigeria’s northeast. But little has improved in Chibok since April. Last November, the town was overrun and occupied briefly by Boko Haram before the military retook it.
Like many states in Nigeria’s north, Borno State struggles with high rates of poverty and underdevelopment. Despite being a town of over 66,000, Chibok has only a dirt road to connect it to the rest of the world.
In interviews, the girls who escaped the kidnapping said they were motivated to continue their studies at AUN as a way to help Chibok.
Per the American University’s request, Voice of America is only identifying the girls by their first names.
Grace, an aspiring doctor, said the underdevelopment of her community motivates her to continue her studies.
“I really want to change the place because our road, we didn’t have a good road for transport, and it makes difficult for us to come to places," she said. "And we really want to change our area.”
Yana said one of the hardest parts of her studies was leaving her parents in Chibok.
“It’s difficult because every parent have that parental care for their children, but since because it is for our own good and progress, they have to leave me, and also I do have to leave them, because this is for our own achievement,” she said.
Yana hopes to eventually become a geologist or ecologist. But she knows her path will eventually take her back to Chibok.
“I want to live there, even though it’s not going to be permanently, but I will live there because it’s part of me. And for me to make that change, I have to live there,” she said.
After the girls arrived at AUN, students organized a march around the campus to demand the release of the remaining kidnapped girls. At the start of the march, the girls chanted “bring back our girls.” But as the march went on, the chant changed to “we miss our girls,” and finally, “we love our girls."