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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in Maiduguri

‘They only knew how to fight’: school helps girls to heal after Boko Haram

Women and girls sit in a circle at a community help group run by the Neem Foundation in Sokoto State, Nigeria
Women and girls who have been affected by violence or kidnapped by Boko Haram are offered trauma counselling and support. Photograph: Courtesy of Neem Foundation

What 19-year-old Binta Usman remembers most vividly about her early days at the Lafiya Sarari girls’ school in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, are the frequent tears that made it hard for her to concentrate in class.

“We’d all be sitting in class and all of us would just be crying,” she says.

Like Usman, whose father was killed and family held captive by the militant jihadist group Boko Haram, all 100 women and girls at the school have either witnessed a parent’s murder or been kidnapped themselves.

Another pupil, 17-year-old Hassana, recalls being forced to join the militants, handling weapons and carry out acts of violence. “We drank blood,” she says.

Boko Haram has targeted schools as part of its campaign of atrocities in north-eastern Nigeria since 2010. It has carried out massacres and multiple abductions, including 2014’s killing of 59 schoolboys, the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014 and 101 girls in Dapchi in 2018.

A large group of schoolboys sit and stand together in a crowded hall
Nigerian schoolboys who were abducted by Boko Haram sit with other students at their school in Kankara, Katsina State, after their release in December 2020. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Between 2013 and 2018, according to the UN, Boko Haram abducted more than 1,000 children, using them as soldiers and domestic or sex slaves. Amnesty International has estimated that 1,436 schoolchildren and 17 teachers were abducted between December 2020 and October 2021.

The Lafiya Sarari school was set up in response to the terror Boko Haram has inflicted. Established in 2017 by the Neem Foundation, a Nigerian charity set up to help communities affected by violence, the school is designed to provide support and education to those who have suffered trauma.

“What we do is a trauma-informed learning approach,” says Dr Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who helped set up the foundation. “It’s not a set programme.”

She says: “Some people have post-traumatic stress disorder, some come in with depression, some come with anxiety – it changes.

Dr Fatima Akilu holds a microphone, wearing a navy blazer and blue head scarf
Dr Fatima Akilu, a psychologist and executive director of the Neem Foundation. Photograph: Courtesy Neem Foundation

“We used to have a psychologist in the early days when we first started, but now all we have is a full-time counsellor who knows the girls, who has been with them throughout.”

Akilu initially envisioned Lafiya Sarari as a model of reconciliation, where children of victims, perpetrators and the security forces could receive education together.

But the conflict disrupted education, leaving gaps in learning for children too old for traditional primary school classes. “I didn’t even know ‘ABC’ when I came here,” says Usman, who enrolled aged 12.

The selection process involved interviewing girls aged between 11 and 14 from displaced communities and in refugee camps. “We selected girls who were tenacious and could become something because this was going to be quite a long project.

“Quite a few of the girls had come out of captivity at the time, so some of them were really in a bad state [and] needed trauma support. That was also one of the criteria because we could give them long-term treatment,” says Akilu.

White name cards are displayed on rows of empty school desks
The names of Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram are displayed five years after their abduction, in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2019. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Funding for the ongoing pilot programme for 100 girls came from a grant by the US Catena Foundation. Initially, the students learned together, but as they progressed they were streamed by academic achievement. Thirty pupils have successfully passed national exams and are preparing for university this year.


It is a far cry from how they arrived, fearful and distrustful. They struggled to interact or form friendships with other children and often resorted to violence at the slightest provocation. “They only knew how to fight,” says Yakubu Gwadeda, the deputy headteacher.

“They didn’t know how to interact with each other peacefully, how to queue,” he says.

Those who had been involved with Boko Haram, like Hassana, used to try to intimidate their peers with the threat of violence.

“They went through intervention sessions, coping, resilience, expressive therapy,” says the school counsellor, Hauwa Abdullahi Zaifada. “Some could not talk about their experience but we got to hear their stories through drawings and music.

“Sometimes,” she adds, “they would come to the sessions and not say a word, and we would have to reschedule.”

One of Zaifada’s primary goals was to overcome Boko Haram’s indoctrination against education. She found an opportunity when several girls spoke of their desire for revenge against those who had killed their parents or exploited them.

“I told them that you don’t have to be a soldier or hold a gun for revenge,” Zaifada says. “Education can be their revenge.

“They realised that education is valuable and can help them. That’s how they started picking up in school and doing well.”

Falmata Mohammed Talba, 20, found the daily therapy at school so beneficial that she began replicating the sessions with her two brothers, who attend a government-run school.

She helped them cope with the trauma they collectively experienced after witnessing their father’s murder by Boko Haram and then being held captive with their mother.

“When I first started, I used to see her one-on-one almost every day for about six months. Sometimes, I would even run out of the class. Talking to the psychologist helped me a lot,” Talba says.

“I helped my brothers the way Lafiya Sarari helped me. I tell my brothers, ‘This is what they told me. Why don’t you too start practising it?’ That’s how they changed.”

Talba says she and her brothers can now openly discuss their father without succumbing to tears or anger. “We now say, ‘Remember this when we were with Dad’, and we can laugh,” she says.

Hassana’s psychological progress has been notable, even though her academic advancement has been slower than that of some of her peers. She still relies on an interpreter to express herself in English.

“My relatives were so worried about my behaviour that whenever I started acting out, they would start shouting out passages of the Qur’an to calm me down,” she says. “But all that has stopped. The nightmares have also stopped.”

Three girls wearing navy blue hijabs paint landscapes with their backs to the camera
Some pupils who are unable to talk about their experiences express themselves through drawings or music. Photograph: Courtesy of Neem Foundation

Seven years after the launch of Lafiya Sarari, Zaifada still has daily sessions with her students.

“Now I don’t have to look for them. They come to me if they have any issues,” she says. “Most of the issues now are environmental – peer-group influences, family issues.”

As for Usman, the crying has stopped. She smiles broadly as she shares her aspirations of winning a scholarship to study law at Cambridge University.

“I hear it is a good school,” she says.

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