There’s a devastating and beautifully photographed new story up at The New York Times about the Nigerian students who were freed from Boko Haram after being kidnapped by the group in 2014. And while more than 100 of those young women now live on a private university campus, they still live under constant surveillance, hours away from home.
The Times reports that as soon as the girls were released from Boko Haram, they were sent to the capital city Abuja where they were aggressively questioned regarding the whereabouts of their classmates and if they were at all loyal to their kidnappers. They were held, for months, in a government dorm, and were only allowed to talk to their parents by phone. In 2015 the Washington Post reported that many Boko Haram survivors were shunned by their community who believed them to be threats.
Officials at the American University of Nigeria then worked with the government to take the freed group in as students, preparing them for college life and catching the women up on the curriculum they missed while in captivity. But while all the freed students agreed to attend the school, the arrangement has its problems. Security is so tight that the women can not leave campus without an escort and while some of them gave birth during their captivity they are not allowed to live with their children at the school because it would reportedly distract from their studies. Overall, the students barely get to see their families.
There seem to be issues as well with the university’s handling of the students’ trauma and how to create a curriculum for these women who are all now in their 20s. The Times reports that the program seems “designed for elementary students,” with classrooms decorated with “pictures of Spider-Man and basic multiplication tables.” Posters encouraging positive thinking (“Shine like stars”) line the walls and the sermons the students get to hear are lighter than the ones given to the local congregation. The women are also taught to only speak in English at the university, as well as in their therapy sessions, even though most of the women struggle with the language.
The government and university are also concerned given the media attention placed on the freed students, which inspired the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement in 2014. University officials do not let journalists ask about their experiences with Boko Haram in case it traumatizes the students further. Somiari Demm, the psychologist assigned to the group of students, says that she wants them to tell their own stories in their own time and that, currently, they are adjusting to being “being free, but not really free.”
“I know I’m in a place where nobody will chase me and do something wrong to us,” one student Rhoda Peter, a 22-year-old who dreams of becoming a lawyer, says. “They are here to help us.”