Zannah Mustapha and his son, who is in a nursery class at the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, Maiduguri, Nigeria (UNHCR/Rahima Gambo)

A 58-year-old Nigerian lawyer who brokered the release of 82 Chibok girls taken hostage by Boko Haram has been named as the 2017 winner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award.

Zannah Mustapha won the prestigious honour, which recognises extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees and comes with a US$150,000 prize, for his work with displaced children growing up amid violence in north-eastern Nigeria. He founded a school for orphans and vulnerable children in 2007 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.

His Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School provides a free education for 540 students, with 2,000 more on the waiting list. Mustapha opened a second school in 2016, which has 88 children enrolled.

Announcing the winner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said: “Education is one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children overcome the horrors of violence… It empowers young people, equips them with skills and works to counter exploitation and recruitment by armed groups.”

Speaking about his contribution to the refugee problem in north-east Nigeria, Mustapha said: “Every person here needs a lifeline, a fresh chance in life… In one way or another everyone here is a victim of this terrible [Boko Haram] insurgency.”

The school stayed open throughout the conflict with Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden”.

Students come from both Christian and Muslim families, which helps “protect” the school, according to Suleiman Aliyu, a colleague of Mustapha’s, who has been at the school since its creation. “All sides of the conflict are represented here. We teach Islamic and so-called Western education. A child is a child to [Mustapha], whatever its background,” he said.

In their announcement of the prize, the UNHCR said that Mustapha “has no enemies, and links to all sides of the conflict”, which led to him becoming one of the chief mediators in efforts to obtain the release of the Chibok schoolgirls, who gained worldwide attention when they were abducted by Boko Haram in April 2014.

In July it was announced that Nigerian aid worker Dr Rebecca Dali had won the 2017 UN Sergio Vieira de Mello Award for her work in reintegrating Boko Haram victims back into their communities.