Debrah and Grace graduated high school in Washington in June and will start university next month. (Photo: EMCI)

It’s many thousands of miles from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno, Nigeria, to university in the United States. But, following their kidnapping on 14 April 2014, it’s a journey that a handful of young girls from remote, rural north-eastern Nigeria have now made. (Their fellow escapees remain in Nigeria, their treatment still sometimes a subject of some concern to supporters.)

Four Chibok girls are now to start university in the US next month (one already started last year).

A Nigerian couple, who have helped ten of the Chibok escapees to pursue their studies, travelled from Nigeria to Washington last month to attend the high-school graduation ceremony of two of them.

Debrah and Grace were among 276 schoolgirls snatched overnight by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, from their school dormitory. Most of them are Christians, of the Church of Brethren in Nigeria, also known as Ekklisiyar Yan Uwa a Nijerya, or the EYN Church.

The couple, Paul and Rebecca Gadzama, are the co-founders and directors of the Education Must Continue Initiative (EMCI), a charity aimed at helping children pursue their studies in areas affected by Boko Haram’s insurgency.

Grace and Debrah celebrate their graduation with Rebecca Gadzama. (Photo: EMCI)

“We took steps of faith when we brought some escaped girls into our house for almost six months, and we eventually managed to take ten of them to the US,” says Rebecca. “It’s a great achievement, not only for Paul and me, but for all the goodwill of people whose contribution helped these two girls to reach that level.”

“We were very excited and filled with joy to see these girls, whose education was about to be jeopardised by Islamist militants, continue their education in the US,” adds her husband, Paul. “We are really grateful to God for his faithfulness.” (It was symbolic of their commitment to the girls that the couple had not been able to afford to attend their own daughter’s graduation – with a Master’s in Public Health in Michigan – just a few weeks earlier.)

Unlike some of their schoolmates, who escaped the terrorists’ trucks in the moments after their abduction, Grace and Debrah were taken all the way to Boko Haram’s camp in Sambisa Forest, before they escaped and made it back home in a terrifying journey that took about a week, with their captors in hot pursuit.

They were the last of 57 girls to have escaped in the immediate aftermath, until last year’s escape of Amina Ali, after two years in captivity. More than a hundred more have been rescued or released in the past year, but a hundred others are still unaccounted for.

Paul and Rebecca Gadzama want the world to look beyond the Chibok kidnapping and support other children in need of education. (EMCI)

Just the beginning

Two others of the ten, known as Joy and Lydia, also completed US high school in June.

“Their achievement is just opening our eyes to what’s possible, and encouraging us that if we put our hands together, we can overcome challenges,” says Rebecca.

We want the world to look beyond the Chibok kidnapping because there are many more other girls and women in bondage. Many children who lost their parents to Boko Haram’s insurgency are still in need of education. Thousands of them are displaced and live in IDP [internally displaced people] camps.”

Rebecca recalls their 2014 visit to a camp in Yola, capital of Adamawa state, one of the three most affected by the insurgency.

“We were so excited to visit the students, who were around 10-12 years old,” she says. “I asked them, ‘How many of you want to be doctors?’ Two raised their hands and it was a huge class of maybe 50 kids. ‘How many want to be teachers?’ A few raised their hands. ‘How many want to be pastors?’ One hand. I felt discouraged. Then I asked, ‘How many want to be soldiers?’ Everyone raised their hands… One said, ‘I want to be a pilot so I can bomb Boko Haram’. Vengeance is in their hearts…

“Along the way we also discovered that the education of most children in northeast Nigeria is very poor. Children can barely read or write.

“My husband and I attended schools set up by missionaries. Having benefited from that good education, we look back and said, ‘We should do something, otherwise these kids, who are already bitter, will become even more so.’ Boko Haram may go down, but a new militant group may come up, even from Christian kids. That’s why we established EMCI”.

Lot of challenges

So far, more than 2,000 children attend EMCI schools in northeast and central Nigeria. Fifty-eight sat high-school exams in 2016, 85% of them passing their tests in English and Mathematics; 23 still await their results.

The charity is still opening new schools, so that education must continue, says Paul.

“We challenge people with good hearts to join us or to start something similar, so that we can all achieve great things for the benefit of disadvantaged children,” he says.

The couple face lots of challenges, including the lack of funds for scholarships for the girls to go through university. They also expressed concern over the hundred girls released recently, whose future is still unclear.

“We pray for our authorities and encourage them to get those girls back to school,” says Paul. “We also beg and pray so that the remaining 113 girls still held, against their wishes, will be released. We plead with the militants, we plead with the government, to do all they can to return these girls to their families.”