In northeast Nigeria, how education is helping Hadiza and Mustapha look to the future

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© UNICEF Nigeria/2017/Dwyer

Maiduguri, Nigeria, February 2017 – Mustapha loves meeting his friends for a quick game of soccer before class starts in the camp where he lives with what is left of his family.

Mustapha fled to Maiduguri with his mother and siblings after their home was destroyed in an attack by Boko Haram. His grandfather was killed but his father managed to hide and survived the attack, only to be killed later when he returned to salvage goods from the shop the family had run.

When Mustapha, who is now 12, arrived in the camp he suffered from terrible nightmares – a muddled mix of dreams of his father chasing him and trying to kill him – a clear sign of the trauma he had endured.

School has provided an escape for Mustapha and his young friends who have all experienced horrific violence. But the conflict in northeast Nigeria is so complex that traditional responses to the needs of those displaced – particularly children like Mustapha – can fall short.

Displaced children don’t just need to learn to read and write

Since the conflict began in 2009, some 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes – more than half of them children.

Children are extremely vulnerable in any conflict. In northeast Nigeria, thousands of children have also been kidnapped and held by Boko Haram. Boys are often forced into support roles by the armed group and girls forced to become “wives,” suffering months and sometimes years of sexual abuse.

Hadiza’s mother is one of many parents trying to protect their children in the face of such violence. One day she was forced to flee with her daughter after Boko Haram attacked their home and killed her husband. After the attack, they managed to find their way to Maiduguri, to the Muna Garage camp for people displaced by the conflict.

“We had a peaceful life before Boko Haram. One day they turned up and started killing people,” she remembers. “We were in crisis.”

Once they arrived in the camp and began to recover from the immediate trauma of their ordeal, Hadiza’s mother went straight to enrol her daughter in school. “I didn’t like seeing my daughter out of school,” remembers Hadiza’s mother, but being in school has become more important than either Hadiza or her mother realised. It has become a grounding force in both their lives and Hadiza is turning into a star pupil.

“I'm so proud when I see her getting into her uniform in the morning,” her mother says, beaming. “At night she sits by my side and does her homework.”

For children like Mustapha and Hadiza, getting back to school has meant they can have a semblance of structure, security and normality in their lives. On top of the regular classes, their dedicated teachers use games and craft activities to help them process what has happened and enable them to begin to think about the future. Hadiza dreams of becoming a doctor and leaving the trauma of her experience far behind. For Mustapha, his outlook is more philosophical – he believes that education will be the means to bring peace to Nigeria.