Chibok Kidnapping Survivors, Now In Oregon Boarding School | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Chibok Kidnapping Survivors, Now In Oregon Boarding School

Posted: Jun 12, 2015 at 1:38 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Mercy, Deborah, Sarah, and Grace may seem like your typical Nigerian international high school students in the United States, but they are tied together by deep tragedy: they all survived the Boko Haram Chibok kidnapping in 2014. While they contemplated how to escape from the clutches of their nation’s homegrown terrorist group, millions around the world, including activists and world leaders, rallied around them with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. 

Mercy meets Gabriel

Mercy meets Gabriel

Through the efforts of a Virginia nonprofit called the Jubilee Campaign and Nigerian activists, these girls are now studying at a private boarding school in Oregon. They are adjusting to their new lives in America, replete with exposure to a wide variety of electronics and stores, and slowly recovering from the trauma of their kidnapping. Their lives are filled with uncertainty about their families, about Boko Haram, and about the people they’ve left behind. Supportive counselors and school administrators in Oregon are hoping that these girls get scholarships to college, but in the meantime, they are still navigating their new world.

Meet Some of the Survivors From the Boko Haram Chibok Kidnapping

After escaping the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, these Nigerian girls are adjusting to a strange new life in small-town Oregon.

Mercy, Sarah, and Deborah (Grace asked not to be photographed)

Grace slept through the sounds of gunfire in the night. Exhausted from final exams at her boarding school in Nigeria, she awoke when her roommate Mary prodded her, “Get up!”

Suddenly, the girls saw a gang of men spreading across the school grounds. “They said they were soldiers. They said they were there to protect us,” Grace says. “They told us all to stay together.”

Terrified, the girls did as they were told. The men made their way to the pantry, grabbing all the food. Then they headed for the administrative office. On the way, they began shouting, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” It means “God is great” in Arabic. They lit the office on fire.

“We realized they were impostors,” Grace says. “They were not there to help us.” But it was too late to run. The girls were forced into trucks at gunpoint. Grace sat with Mary as their vehicle roared off into the dawn. As the school burned in their wake, lighting the sky, Grace thought, These men are going to kill us.

That was more than a year ago, in April. Terrorist group Boko Haram seized hundreds of school girls from the town of Chibok, threatening to sell them as slaves.

Global outrage followed. Social media erupted with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie joined the rallying cry. A few dozen of the kidnapped girls managed to escape. Yet at press time, more than 200 remained missing, despite a recent military offensive that freed hundreds of other captives.

Boko Haram has waged an increasingly bloody war in recent years, beheading, burning alive, and gunning down thousands of people in an effort to create an Islamic state and wipe out Western influence from the country’s schools. At least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of last year, according to Amnesty International. Some were reportedly stoned to death.

Today, Grace is living a world away from all that, at a high school in Canyonville, Oregon, a town ringed by mountains and towering redwoods. She and three other Chibok girls are quietly finishing their education at the Canyonville Christian Academy, a cozy boarding school with students from more than a dozen countries. Grace wants her tale of escape to be told. But she is not too eager to do the telling.

I sense this the moment I meet her. It’s a chilly spring Tuesday, and she and the other Chibok girls are leaning against a chain-link fence, relaxing after track practice. Cathy Lovato, the head of school, introduces me, and the girls turn to me, their faces suddenly serious. Grace barely makes eye contact.

For the girls, arriving in America was like landing on Mars. They had grown up in deeply poor, rural villages with no Internet access and in some cases a sole landline phone for the entire village. In Oregon, everything was new: winter weather, puffy coats, remote controls, trampolines, yogurt-covered pretzels, cheerleaders, ice skating, karaoke. They spoke only a little English.

The first girl to arrive, Mercy, came this past November. School president Doug Wead recalls Mercy’s first-ever encounter with an escalator. As she stepped onto the moving staircase at the airport, she panicked and dropped her bag. That night, at the hotel, she took a bath and stayed there for hours. “Later, my wife checked in on her, and she was asleep on the bed, lying on top of the fluffy comforter,” says Wead. “Her coat was on, fully zipped.”

The girls came to Canyonville with the help of a nonprofit group in Virginia, the Jubilee Campaign, and activists from Nigeria. The girls, all of whom are Christian, live in constant uncertainty, unsure whether relatives are alive or dead, whether their homes have been burned. They keep in touch with loved ones by phone when possible amid the chaos.

In a campus lounge overlooking a creek and a bridge, Grace arrives for her interview on a Wednesday afternoon. Wearing skinny jeans and pink flip-flops, she looks like a typical American student, except for the deep anxiety on her face. Her counselor, Debbie Horton, is there with me. The Chibok girls, all 18 years old, have been meeting with the counselor since their arrival. Grace came in December with classmates Sarah and Deborah, a few weeks after Mercy. Cosmopolitan is withholding their last names for safety. Grace recently lost her brother, two uncles, and a cousin, all killed by Boko Haram.

The youngest of five children, Grace says she imagined becoming a teacher when she finished boarding school in Chibok. Speaking in her native language and using a translator, she begins to cry, covering her face with one hand, while her counselor holds the other. On the night of the terrorist attack, she says, the men drove the girls to a sprawling forest, shouting, “You should not have been going to school! We are in control of you now.”

 

Culled from Cosmopolitan