Nansen winner gives new hope to girls orphaned by Boko Haram conflict
Tears tumbled down the cheeks of 13-year-old Hauwa Madu as she recalled the death of her father three years ago at the hands of one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups.
Nervously playing with her fingers, she recounted in a quiet voice how armed gunmen from Boko Haram had stormed one morning into their small home in a village near Damboa, north-east Nigeria and shot him dead.
“He was doing his ablutions before praying, but they just came in and shot him dead in his room,” she said softly.
Tragedy then struck again a few weeks later. Her father’s elder brother, her uncle, came to the village to take them to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state where the Boko Haram insurgency has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and killed at least 20,000.
"Dreams of becoming a doctor were in tatters."
“He thought we would be safer there because Boko Haram fighters were taking over the area around the village, but on the way my mother who was pregnant died in childbirth,” Hauwa added.
Hauwa moved in with her aunt and uncle who have six of their own children, some of whom resented the presence of the newcomer. At the young age of 10, she was facing a life with no education and little hope. Her dreams of becoming a doctor were in tatters.
Her aunt however had heard of Zannah Mustapha’s Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School for orphans and vulnerable children that unlike other schools charged no fees. She was accepted and since then her life has been transformed.
“When I think about my parents I become sad, I miss them,” Hauwa recounted. “But I love this school and studying. I have two really good friends… Mr. Mustapha is a really good man. He takes care of all us here. He gives us food, books and free study. I still want to study medicine and I think I have a chance.”
Pupils at Mustupha’s two schools, known as Future Prowess One and Two, also receive at least one meal a day as many of the children arrive at school hungry.
“This school is really like my home now. I can think of tomorrow again because of what he has done for us here,” added Hauwa.
The school’s pupils come from all sides of the conflict. Children of suspected Boko Haram militants learn alongside those of members of the security services, Muslims alongside Christians.
“There is no way a child will learn with an empty stomach.”
“Every person here needs a lifeline, a fresh chance in life… In one way or another everyone here is a victim of this terrible insurgency,” Mustapha said in an interview with UNHCR, explaining his thinking behind the school and an accompanying project for widows which he set up through his Future Prowess Islamic Foundation in 2007.
“There is no way a child will learn with an empty stomach,” Mustapha said. “We have to provide everything including uniforms, but thanks to our many supporters we have been able to do this.”
Mustapha has been named the 2017 winner of UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.
“I am really hoping this award can take us to another stage and help us set up scholarships for further education… Many of the pupils from the early years are now ready to go to college or university and we must find a way to finance that,” he said.