'The Nansen Award was one of the most inspiring things in my life'
Three years ago, Zannah Mustapha was named the winner of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for providing orphans of Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency with an education.
The Nigerian lawyer and property developer set up the Future Prowess School in 2007, after witnessing growing numbers of children on the streets of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Insecurity in northern Nigeria was once again in the news this month when more than 300 schoolboys were kidnapped after their school was attacked by armed men – they were later released and returned home.
Mustapha’s school provides free education, free meals, uniforms and health care to children affected by the violence. Through his tireless efforts to build bridges, he was instrumental in securing the release of 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls in May 2017, who gained worldwide attention when they were abducted along with nearly 200 others by Boko Haram militants three years earlier.
He reflects on how the Award – whose previous winners include Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and First Lady of the United States and Julius Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania – has changed his life and that of the thousands of children benefitting from his work.
How has the Nansen Award furthered the work you do for orphans?
Today, our Future Prowess Foundation consists of three primary schools and one secondary school. We have also opened a technical vocational training center and we have over 2,000 children enlisted – mainly girls – and over 1,800 are on a waiting list.
"The Nansen Award was one of the most inspiring things in my life."
How did the Nansen Award impact your life?
The Nansen Award was one of the most inspiring things in my life. To be known in the world and named with others of the caliber of Eleanor Roosevelt and Julius Nyerere, who dedicated their whole lives to a cause, inspired me. “Am I the one?” I asked myself. Sometimes, it does not feel real. The Award also challenged me and I often wonder if I can sustain the momentum. But when I look at these women, the widows and girls who have been through ordeals, they come here every day to learn new skills, to thrive and continue to take care of their families – it gives me a sense of accomplishment.
How did COVID-19 affect your schools?
At the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, when all schools were closed, ours remained open, but with COVID-19, we had to close for two months based on government instructions. In November, we reopened.
Food was the main challenge. The orphans used to eat at the school, but due to COVID-19, they could not get food outside, as shops were closed. So, we distributed food donated to us to their homes.
What else has changed since 2017?
The Nansen Award really changed the opportunities we could give to our children. We increased our capacity to receive more children. Other awards followed, notably the Aurora Prize.
In the Foundation, we asked ourselves how we can make our work more sustainable. We bought 10 hectares of land at the riverbank and established rice fields, a banana plantation and a fish farm for the relatives of the students, as they are internally displaced and didn’t have any form of work to do in Maiduguri.
We started collaborating with UNHCR’s livelihoods centre where 6,000 vulnerable people, especially widows, received training on how to make an income. They were trained in machine knitting, shoe and handbag making, cosmetology, computer skills, tailoring, catering and confectionary, beadwork and mat making.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you as a humanitarian?
When I told the Chibok girls who were abducted by Boko Haram, “You are free!”
The Boko Haram conflict has left many dead, others are orphans and widows, still living in fear. How is the reconciliation progressing?
This is not an easy task, it takes time. We were able to build trust to achieve the release of the Chibok girls. However, as a society, we did not go beyond Chibok, I am afraid. We need to have three building blocks for reconciliation: protection of civilians, access for humanitarians and the cessation of hostilities. I want to see an end to the hostilities, but for this, we need to analyze the root of the conflicts, to open doors of communication.
What does the situation, which is still tense in some areas, mean for the individual orphan?
Every child that wants to enroll in our schools has to go through a trauma centre for evaluation. The effect of the insurgency is still visible in our children. Many have been traumatized and it is affecting their behaviour. Others have internalised the tension, and the only visible sign is the high blood pressure they all had at the beginning.
What keeps you going?
It’s a moral thing. Also, my Muslim faith. For Muslims, orphans are very important. If you help an orphan, you are likely to go to heaven. If you abuse one or take something away from an orphan, you go to hell.
I went to a school that taught both Islam and the Christian faith and we had a Catholic priest. In our schools, we also offer education in different religions, we do not discriminate by faith.
"Nothing will stop me from doing what I believe in – even if somebody does not like it."
Do you receive threats for your work?
I have never received a threat, ever. There are some people who don’t understand my work, but nothing will stop me from doing what I believe in – even if somebody does not like it. There was, and there continues to be, resistance to the education of girls, even among the elite. Men would rather send boys to school.
How then, do you manage to enroll so many girls?
This came with the conflict. As mothers ended up becoming widows, they chose to send their girls to our schools.