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In war with Boko Haram, Nigerians battle to keep the classroom door open

At the height of their campaign, Boko Haram militants targeted schools with deadly force. But with recovery in mind, some Nigerians are answering back, working to ensure that displaced children can still learn.

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    The boys at the Kano boarding school, all orphans from the Boko Haram insurgency, want for little. The Kano state government plans to cover all their living and education expenses for years to come.
    Sani Makaitanga
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    The orphans at the Kano school all hail from Borno, the home state of Boko Haram, and the worst hit by the insurgency.
    Sani Makaitanga
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You could easily miss the school gate that sits along this dusty, winding road on the outskirts of town. Which is the point: Its anonymity protects those who live and work behind it from prying eyes.

But after much back-and-forth with a suspicious guard, the gates swing open to reveal a vibrant burst of activity. A scrum of boys chase after a soccer ball on a new playground, their donated clothing hanging loosely on their slight frames. Others play on freshly painted swings perched cheerfully in front of classrooms and dormitories.  

As their laughter floats through the air, the children at this school in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north seem blissfully unaware of their role in formulating a response to Boko Haram, the militant group that has killed thousands of Nigerians while forcing boys into war and girls into slavery.

Located hundreds of miles from Borno, the state most affected by the violence that has upended life in northeast Nigeria, the school is on a mission to teach the children they see as future leaders of the war-racked region. Still unnamed, it promises a top-
tier education to 100 boys orphaned by the conflict, starting by giving them a sense of security and freeing them from the burdens refugees typically face. 

These children have textbooks and all the pencils they need in an area where school supplies are beyond the reach of most. Where few from their underserved region finish primary school, they are guaranteed financial support until university. Where hunger from displacement is common, they have stores of donated food. And because it is a year-round boarding school, the children, ages 6 to 12, are getting a rare opportunity to catch up with the national curriculum after their own schools shut down last year. They even have the luxury of a television. And all this is covered by the state government of Kano. 

“We don’t want the children to have to worry about anything but their education,” says Yahaya Salisu Nasara, the school’s headmaster, during a tour. 

To Mr. Nasara, this venture in northern Nigeria’s commercial hub could also be a vehicle for changing the broader narrative on education in Africa’s most populous country amid one of the most violent moments in its history. 

On a continent that is home to nearly half the world’s unschooled children, Nigeria is statistically an eyesore: In 2010, it had 
8.2 million children out of school, more than any other country in the world. That number has increased to about 10.5 million, or 42 percent of primary-school-age children, according to the United States Agency for International Development – and a majority of them live in the Muslim north.

As steps toward recovery begin in the northeast – even as Boko Haram remains a threat – the school is a powerful example of how communities can come together to help the more than 1.4 million children displaced by Boko Haram, which sees Western-inspired education as a threat to Islam.

To Kano state officials here, the fundamental concept is simple: Keep children in the classroom and strengthen the very tool that militants want to destroy. It’s an idea that has been deployed by teachers, education specialists, volunteers, and parents throughout the region who have turned to both formal and informal efforts to ensure that children receive the education they deserve. 

“We want to do as much as practically possible to fully rehabilitate these children,” says Hafiz Abubakar, Kano State’s deputy governor and education commissioner. “We want for them to put the trauma behind them and become the future leaders of our country.” 

But while the Kano school pulsates with the hope of its mission, it is still a rare bright spot in an education system overburdened by conflict and the lack of any formal government-led plan.

 *          *          *

Debates about how to shape the northeast’s recovery are just starting – and the task ahead is daunting. The thousands making the trek back home in the hardest-hit states often find only a shell of their towns and villages – with schools, churches, and hospitals completely destroyed.

“I mean, it’s just difficult to imagine how they can go back without help from outside ... to help restructure their lives, restructure their communities, and prepare for the long-term process it will take to rebuild,” says Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch Nigeria. “They need a deliberate plan ... targeted at addressing all these issues.”

Many are hopeful that President Muhammadu Buhari, elected last March, will deliver on his vow to rein in Boko Haram and confront the corruption that has abetted its rise. But his government has shared little about its vision for recovery so far, having only just appointed cabinet ministers. 

Further, a Safe Schools Initiative has yielded little. The United Nations-led coalition raised an initial $10 million in May 2014 to promote schools as safe places after more than 200 girls were kidnapped from Chibok, garnering global attention. Funds were set up to pilot 500 safe schools in the north that would bolster long-term school security. But little information has come out about the initiative’s progress, and requests to speak with education ministers under former President Goodluck Jonathan were refused or ignored.

Still, Mr. Buhari has been vocal about the role education plays in improving conditions in the north, which has lagged behind the rest of the country for decades. 

“The best investment we can make in the north ... is in investing in the potentials of our children,” Buhari said this summer, promising that if northerners sent their children to school – attendance being a large problem – he would deliver a better educated generation in a decade. “Knowledge, you know, is not just power: Knowledge is also health, it is also wealth, and it is also an antidote to ignorance.”

 *          *          *

About 400 miles from the Kano school, the dusty playground at the Education Must Continue Initiative (EMCI) School in Yola is packed with hundreds of children on a scorching August afternoon. School is technically out, says Rebecca Gadzama, who founded the school more than a year ago with her husband, Paul, but the children still come each morning as they have nowhere else to go. 

“Their parents prefer it that they come here,” Ms. Gadzama says, watching kids scamper around as she hides from the sun’s rays under a tree. Even her elaborately tied headscarf seems to want a break from the heat.

Since the Gadzamas started the school for displaced children in March, under their non-profit Education Must Continue Initiative, the students have been taking their classes on mats under thatched-roof structures. On this day, a group of schoolteachers, refugees themselves with little else to do now that school is out, sit in a circle of chairs and exchange gossip about Boko Haram – which town was hit where – while watching their wards. 

“War leaves you with little to do but wait,” Gadzama explains.

The Gadzamas are from the town of Lassa, in Borno State, which was captured by Boko Haram last December. Thousands fled to Yola, the capital of nearby Adamawa State, which is believed to be home to the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria.

The orphans at the Kano school all hail from Borno, the home state of Boko Haram, and the worst hit by the insurgency. Sani Makaitanga

Many of the 2.1 million people displaced at the height of the insurgency late last year still linger in an unknown number of government camps throughout the north. Thousands more are gathered in unofficial camps, often run by religious organizations or nongovernmental organizations, because they lack the documentation to enter government facilities, says Baba Oliver, founder of ETRAHN, an NGO that works on rehabilitation and recovery.

“The truth of the matter is the IDPs sheltered in government camps barely make up 20 percent of IDPs nationwide,” he says.

While the official camps offer some education, the Gadzamas quickly saw that it was inadequate. So they tapped into the scrappy, use-what-you-have style that has emerged here. Using land offered by a cousin, they rounded up former teachers from the unofficial camps, paid for supplies, built thatched classrooms, and put a call out to parents. They have been teaching ever since.

“The fact of the matter is that the children of Borno have been forgotten,” says Gadzama. “No one cares if they are educated or not.”

A majority of the children at the EMCI School live outside the government camps in Yola. Because of this, Gadzama believes they should at least get some funding or aid from the government. But the school has received no official acknowledgment from the state government, and their only assistance has been in the form of trauma workshops hosted by UNICEF.

“Most of the recovery of northeastern Nigeria is being done by the people who are not powerful, people who are insignificant to the government,” says Pastor Samuel Dali of the Church of the Brethren in Lassa. “Everything we have done is on our own. And we will continue doing it all on our own.” 

That is a common assessment, says Ms. Segun of Human Rights Watch Nigeria: “I think that’s what I get from many of [the IDPs], the sense of being abandoned. Many believe the government doesn’t really care and that they can’t count on anyone but themselves.”

Coming from one of the poorer regions in Nigeria, Gadzama says she long ago learned not to depend on the federal government. But being ignored in such dire times has stung. “We do all this, but have we seen a single penny from the government?” she asks. The school has been depending on donors. “Not even one government official in Yola has come to acknowledge [the school’s] efforts.”

After a beat, she clarifies that she does not want the acknowledgment for herself.

“The support of the government or an NGO could really change the lives of these children,” she says. “But we hear nothing.”

 *          *          *

Back in Kano at the state-funded school, an official is standing in front of a class of 50 orphaned children, trying to get them to answer her questions. Across the school yard, the other 50 are sitting in their class. 

“Raise your hand if you want to be a doctor!” she says. Few of the kids respond.

“A lawyer?” Again, few hands.

“What about president?” she asks.

More than half raise their hands. 

“And a soldier?” All hands shoot up.

The response is familiar to teachers at IDP camps and even the EMCI School, where one of the teachers explains, “They all want jobs where they can have revenge.”

He says many children acted up in class when they first started: Classes were disrupted, fights were common, and Boko Haram war games were popular on the playground.

“These children have experienced horrific brutality and deprivations,” says Segun. “They’ve been traumatized by what they’ve seen, and what they’ve experienced.

“You look at them and the situations they have faced and you have to wonder about the future,” she adds, noting that 60 to 70 percent of IDPs are children. “Not just for themselves, but for their communities and this country really.” 

The threat of Boko Haram persists. Both Kano and Yola suffered attacks by suicide bombers in mid-November. Gadzama says time is of the essence; she and her husband are already planning a second EMCI School in Lassa. “Even if they forget us, we are still here,” she says. “Education must continue.”

This report was supported by the International Center for Journalists.

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