After escaping Boko Haram, Nigerian girl finds hope in education

By Chima Onwe and Evelyn Rupert

June 5, 2017

For youth dealing with trauma, classes offer more than just academics

ADAMAWA, Nigeria — Hau’wa is practicing her breathing. She places her hands on her stomach, inhaling deeply, and counts to 10.

She is seated with classmates in a non-formal learning center in this northern city, where part of her education is devoted to social and emotional learning. The breathing exercise is a tool that helps students learn to control their anger.

The instruction is aimed at helping Hau’wa, 15, cope with the trauma she has already experienced, at the hands of Boko Haram.

Across five states, 1,300 similar non-formal learning centers supported by the Nigeria Education Crisis Response program are helping students like Hau’wa.

With the help of the communities, the program is increasing the availability of safe and protective learning spaces that provide instruction in core academic subjects, wrap-around services like socio-emotional support and life skills for internally displaced and out-of-school children and youth.

In northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram has terrorized communities for more than a decade, this programming can encourage healing and build resiliency. By focusing on the overall wellbeing of students, the non-formal learning centers aim to help children regain a sense of normalcy and community and foster educational success.

The program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and more than 30 Nigerian organizations.

A childhood and education interrupted

Hau’wa reads and watches over her twin daughters at a non-formal learning center in northern Nigeria. Photos by Chima Onwe.
Hau’wa reads and watches over her twin daughters at a non-formal learning center in northern Nigeria. Photos by Chima Onwe.

“From when she was very small, Hau’wa always wanted to go to school,” Hau’wa’s step-mother Aisha says.

Aisha says that from a very young age, Hau’wa would eagerly watch older children return home from classes in their uniforms. Hau’wa went on to become a dedicated student and hoped to be a teacher herself someday.

But in August 2014, Hau’wa’s life was upended when she and her classmates heard gunshots and screams ring out from their town as they walked home from school.

As people fled, Hau’wa ran toward a group of men in uniforms, believing they were members of the Nigerian military. Instead, she found Boko Haram insurgents.

Hau’wa, then 12 years old, was among dozens of school-aged girls and women kidnapped that day by Boko Haram. The group attacked and laid claim to several villages in the area, overrunning local security, killing civilians and burning property. She was captured along with her mother and three sisters, who are all still in captivity.

Boko Haram has ravaged northern Nigeria and nearby regions with attacks on military and police, churches and schools. Hau’wa is one of hundreds of girls and women who have been kidnapped.

Hau’wa says she was held in the Sambisa Forest for close to two years and was forced to marry one of the Boko Haram men. She recently gave birth to twins.

“Throughout this period, I missed my mother. It was difficult to stay away from my family. I also missed going to school,” Hau’wa recalls. “I spent many nights crying and refusing to eat anything while the man I stayed with kept shouting and threatening to beat me if I kept talking about going back to school.”

Hau’wa and six other girls eventually escaped the forest with the help of an elderly man.

A way back through learning

Once free, Hau’wa had the chance to go back to school. She enrolled in a non-formal learning center for adolescent girls established by the Nigeria Education Crisis Response program in October 2016.

Launched in 2014, the project seeks to expand access to quality and protective non-formal and alternative education opportunities for out-of-school children ages 6 to 17.

It currently focuses on the northeastern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe and Yobe and is aimed at bolstering local and state governments’ education capabilities. According to the U.S. State Department, that region has the lowest rate of primary school attendance in the country, at 45 percent.

Education challenges have been exacerbated by Boko Haram. Recent figures from the International Organization for Migration estimate that 1.8 million people are displaced in northeastern states, more than half of them children. Fearing attacks, many schools in the region have been closed.

To date, the Nigeria Education Crisis Response program has reached more than 88,000 children in 1,300 non-formal learning centers and 139 formal schools in the five northern Nigeria states.

Healing in the classroom

With so many children affected by conflict, the Nigeria Education Crisis Response program weaves in social emotional learning activities aimed at strengthening resilience and promoting healing, which in turn can help students succeed in school.

Learning facilitators – using International Rescue Committee’s “Healing Classrooms” model – are trained to guide students on how to understand and handle their emotions, empathize with others, establish healthy relationships, and make constructive choices.

Hau’wa participates in class at a non-formal learning center for adolescent girls, where the curriculum includes social-emotional learning.

“These games and recreational activities helped to calm these children down and to stay focused in class,” says Hafsat, an instructor in Hau’wa’s class.

Hafsat says she has seen progress in Hau’wa, who has attended classes regularly and become friendlier with her classmates and teachers.

“Hau’wa was withdrawn and very aggressive to other learners when she joined the center initially. She did not speak with anyone at first and would scream at her classmates over little disagreements. I noticed she was displaying signs of trauma,” Hafsat says.

In the program-supported non-formal learning centers, social emotional learning is infused into every aspect of education. In addition to social emotional-specific lessons and activities, instructors incorporate the same ideas into the broader curricula. Teachers and administrators are trained on how to foster a positive and structured learning environment to promote positive relationships and a sense of normalcy.

Julia Finder, Technical Manager for the Education in Conflict Practice Area and a social emotional learning expert at Creative Associates International, says such programs are vital in northern Nigeria given the vast number of children who have been negatively affected by Boko Haram.

“Many children have had their education disrupted and have lost out on opportunities to develop both academic and social skills, which are essential to developing life skills needed so children can positively contribute to their communities, especially as they are being rebuilt,” she says.

Finder says a young person like Hau’wa will benefit from the incorporation of social emotional learning into her education.

“She will have the opportunity to develop essential coping mechanisms, form positive relationships, and identify techniques for self-regulating behavior and responsible decision making,” Finder says.

The holistic, multi-tiered framework provides for students at varying degrees of risk. All students in the Education Crisis Response program receive universal support from social emotional programming in schools. Based on risk assessments, certain students can then receive targeted or intensive interventions for additional support based on their behaviors and experiences.

After the birth of her twin girls, Hau’wa quickly returned to the center, which she says has helped her move forward.

“My [learning facilitator] taught me how to control my anger and how to play with other children. Although memories of my bad experience at Sambisa Forest come to my mind occasionally, I try to play with other girls and read my books to forget the past,” she says.

Hau’wa says she has also picked up vocational skills like sewing, which she can use to make clothes for her daughters.

“I am thankful for the opportunity to come and learn in this center,” Hau’wa says. “I am very grateful.”

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