"Education is scary. There are so many people who discouraged us, given that our girls were kidnapped and escaped, and told us we should not put them in school again. Now, we who have agreed, we are giving our children to you. You are the ones to protect them and we are grateful for your help."
Education is scary for the parents of the 58 Chibok girls who escaped from Boko Haram on April 14th, as the mother of one of these girls' states. More than 200 children did not escape and they are still being held. How did the American University of Nigeria (AUN) bring 15 of these "escaped girls" to our campus?
At American University of Nigeria (AUN) where I serve as president, one of our newly hired AUN security guards, Godiya, told our security director, Dr. Lionel Rawlins in May that her sister had escaped. Could we help her? She came into my office and in a very soft voice poignantly told me that her sister was one of the girls who had escaped. Her sister and the others were back in Chibok -- not attending school, but taking long 5-7 km walks during the day to avoid being home when Boko Haram returned for them. Could we help them?
As Africa's first development university, we have made it our mission to ensure that the local and very poor community outside our university grounds also benefits socially and economically from our programs. Helping these young women was unquestionably the right thing to do.
We asked Godiya if she would go back home to Chibok to try to identify these brave girls who had escaped and see if any was interested in continuing the education that Boko Haram had so terrifyingly cut short. With enough funds for ten scholarships, Godiya talked with nine girls and their parents, who gratefully, but also with trepidation accepted the offer to come to AUN. The final day of her trip to Chibok, found Godiya meeting with the father of two daughters. Placed in the impossible position of choosing which of his girls could take advantage of the gift offered him, Godiya improvised, writing "GO TO AUN" on one side of a piece of paper and "WAIT FOR ANOTHER CHANCE" on the other, and was preparing to ask him to choose.
Fortunately, we reached Godiya in time to tell her not to choose between them -- that we would find the funds for both numbers 10 and 11.
While we were making plans to receive the students, we got a call from one of the parents saying they really did not believe we were coming, so they were moving from Chibok, which is still threatened. We decided to go the next day.
Not surprisingly, the morning my security director and I went to get the girls, none of our local armed security guards would accompany us. As we drove north three-quarters of the way to Chibok, we were uncertain where we would find the girls and their parents. We knew the village, but not the exact location. As we reached the village in the quiet of the early morning in our AUN mini buses, with all but the smallest logo removed, we saw a group of people waving at us as we approached an intersection.
We had found them. Most of the girls had very small bags with them; some had nothing. Eleven girls and 11 parents moved quickly into our vehicles. A new life-for all of us-had begun.
The drive back to AUN was quiet; we were all anxious to return to the safety of our campus, to Yola. The girls and their parents said very little. Now safely on our campus, they have begun to talk and we have learned more about that dreadful night. We were told that on the night all of them were abducted men wearing Nigerian military uniforms showed up at the school and herded the girls on to trucks and motorcycles. One of the girls, a 19-year-old, told us they were awakened during the night by a group of men. They were told they were being rescued from their boarding school that was threatened She noticed the men were wearing kaftans and weren't wearing any shoes. "Deep inside me," the girl told us, "I feel that these people are not soldiers. They are not rescuers." She jumped through a window and ran into the bush, never looking back. 47 others also escaped that night.
Four more have made their way to campus to study with us. When I asked our Founder, Atiku Abubakar if he would help fill the gap again between what we have raised and what we need, he said, "Send me the bill."
These, now 15 young women are among the bravest, strongest, most determined young women I have ever met in my 25 years in education. I wish the whole world could see the two sisters, numbers 10 and 11. They never leave each other's sides; they jumped out of the truck together and they will forever protect each other. They are all in intense, individualized academic programs preparing them to take the JAMB next year. Then they will enroll at AUN as undergraduates.
They will succeed because of their determination and because they have the support of an entire university community-faculty, students and staff, who have embraced them. This week when I visited with them, two who had been so quiet asked if they could make a presentation. I was surprised. They stood up and holding hands read from a piece of paper: "This education is changing our lives and our families. Once we finish we will go back and change our communities." The transformation has begun. They-and we-know the importance of education in improving individual lives, communities and countries.
The data on successful development has long told us an important and often ignored truth: it is crucial that we educate girls and women. This is not only just, but improving their access to education and health care is also the most important intervention a society can make towards development. Add to this increasing women's participation in political life and you have the key elements to building successful, sustainable democracies. Nothing is more important in Nigeria at this moment, because education is the hope for a better future.
There are 47 more girls who have escaped and who deserve to be students again.
We launched #EducateOurGirls through www.aunf.org to offer every single escaped girl as well as other vulnerable children, the chance for an education at AUN. It is no accident that Boko Haram is thriving in the least educated region of the country. In northeast Nigeria, illiteracy is the norm and access to quality public education is almost nonexistent. It is crucial that we invest in the future of Nigeria's young people because their futures will determine the future of Nigeria. Without creating opportunities for their education and employment, Africa's most populous nation cannot and will not find prosperity and progress. Of course, efforts like these alone will not defeat terror. But terrorism thrives where hope and opportunity languish, and the escaped girls who are now studying at AUN are a strong reminder of the transformative power of education.
Education may be scary for the thousands of Nigerians who are afraid to send their children to school in a region terrorized by Boko Haram. A society without education is even scarier.
Margee Ensign is President of the American University of Nigeria in Yola, Nigeria. The American University of Nigeria Foundation (aunf.org) is raising funds for scholarships for the other 47 girls who escaped Boko Haram.