At a glance: Nigeria

In Nigeria, a family reunion and a new school

By Doune Porter

Forced by violence to flee his home in north-east Nigeria, and separated from his parents while living as a refugee, a boy is finally reunited with his family and gets another chance to go to school.

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, 13 January 2016 – School holidays were badly timed for 15-year-old Peter, who last month finally managed to enroll in school in Maiduguri, in north-east Nigeria – just six days before the end of the term. But all the same, this shy and intelligent boy with an engaging smile was delighted to be back at school and excited about starting classes again in the New Year.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Nigeria/2015/Esiebo
Peter, 15, and his parents, Tizhe and Mary, were separated when their town was attacked by militants. Peter spent nine months in a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad. When he finally managed to join the rest of his family in Maiduguri, Peter’s parents were overcome with joy.

It has been a long, and sometimes terrifying, road to get here.

A year ago, Peter was driven from his hometown of Baga, when it came under attack by armed militants. The rest of his family had been visiting the town of Maiduguri, 180 km away, and Peter had remained behind, on a fishing trip with a family friend.

The attack began around 4 a.m., and Peter and his friend ran back to Baga. Finding the armed group there as well, they kept running. “During the escape, I ran and ran – I think for 10 hours. I never stopped,” Peter recalls, although he avoids talking about what happened in his hometown.

Eventually, after a boat journey that took him across the nearby border into neighbouring Chad, Peter found himself at the Dar es Salaam refugee camp, among thousands of Nigerian refugees who had fled the conflict.

His parents, in the meantime, were frantic. “I was listening to the radio when I heard that Baga had been attacked by Boko Haram and that hundreds or thousands of people were killed,” says Peter’s father, Tizhe Augustine. “I immediately thought, where is Peter? I could not reach anyone by phone.”

For days, Peter’s father searched the area in Maiduguri where survivors from Baga were arriving. “I asked everyone I knew if they had seen Peter. Some said they had seen him; some said they hadn’t. I waited and waited, calling his name, searching all arrivals but with no success. People came and went, but there was no Peter.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Nigeria/2015/Esiebo
Despite a difficult year – much of it separated from his family by conflict; now reunited with his family but still displaced from their home – Peter has found new friends who share his passion for football.

After five days, still out looking for his son, Augustine was phoned by a friend who had also fled from Baga to Chad, who told him Peter was with him. It was only after Augustine heard Peter’s voice on the phone, however, that he was able to believe his son was alive. He rushed home to tell his wife and family that Peter was safe.

Moment of joy

As his father talks about his parents’ fears for him, Peter fights back tears. They had not spoken before of what Peter’s family went through while he was missing.

Peter spent nine months as a refugee in Chad. Life was hard, but he is a resilient and positive boy. Friendships he forged at the camp, regular games of football, which he loves, and attending the UNICEF school in the camp made life bearable.

In November, through the reunification efforts of UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter was finally able to rejoin his family in Maiduguri, which is one of the most protected areas in Borno State, the epicenter in Nigeria of the conflict.

The reunification with his family was a moment of joy. Augustine and Peter joke that Peter’s mother was jumping up and down so much they thought she would fly. There is clearly a strong bond between father and son, as Augustine adds, “We are very happy to have our son and first-born back.”

Missing out

Just one thing marred the reunion: Peter had been attending school regularly at the refugee camp in Chad. In Maiduguri, his displaced family, which could no longer farm their land in Baga, could not afford to send Peter to the private school in the area.

“Every morning I saw children who could afford private school in their uniforms on their way to school, and it made me feel sad,” Peter says. “In Chad, I attended school in the camp supported by UNICEF, and that made me happy.”

Peter was not alone in missing out on his education. About a million children have been forced out of school because of the conflict in north-east Nigeria. Many, like Peter, have been traumatized by the violence, torn from their homes, forced to witness killings and  separated from their families. Out of school, they are robbed not only of their education, but also of an outlet to express their feelings and a routine that helps to bring a sense of stability to their disrupted lives.

But there was more good news in store for Peter. UNICEF has been supporting the reopening of public schools in the safer areas of the three north-east Nigerian states most affected by the conflict. Most schools in these safer areas have managed to reopen, and although classes are crowded, 170,000 children are back in school. Peter has been able to join them for the term starting in January, carrying his new UNICEF school bag and materials.
 “I feel happy about this, and going to school will change my life for the better,” he says.

Peter confesses to an ambition popular among boys his age: “I want to be a footballer, because the game is good for me.”

But while he is now playing football regularly with other boys in Maiduguri, he has a more practical ambition up his sleeve, as well: “I also want to be a mechanic.”


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Refugees and displaced

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