In 2014, the terrorist group Boko Haram provoked an international outcry in response to their capture of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Since its militant insurgency began in 2009, Boko Haram has effectively displaced more than 2.5 million people from their homes in Nigeria and neighboring countries, and around 4 million are on the verge of starvation due to famine.
The American University of Nigeria (AUN) has taken steps to combat the escalating humanitarian crisis through education and community empowerment, and in September, the college’s president, Margee Ensign, expounded on its efforts during her talk, “A University and Social Change—Dealing with a Humanitarian Crisis.”
Of the millions of internally displaced people in Nigeria, many have fled to Yola, the capital of Adamawa State in the northeastern region of the country where AUN is located. In response, AUN has spearheaded the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API), an interfaith partnership centered on the belief that community members know best the needs of the community. “We all work together,” Ensign noted. “All the traditional rulers are on the Peace Council, so it’s really been a joy to understand their perspectives and work with them.”
API’s most notable project, according to Ensign, is “Feed and Read,” a program designed to provide meals and teach literacy and numeracy to the Yola community, primarily targeting the region’s vast numbers of displaced or orphaned out-of-school children. Three million youth are unable to attend school in northeastern Nigeria; Ensign, API, and AUN intend to reach as many as possible. “I’m hoping we can take a deep breath and expand some of our educational programs,” Ensign remarked. “We’re reaching 22,000 out-of-school kids now, which is a drop in the bucket, but if we can get the money, we could probably get to the majority of those kids.”
Other projects led by API and AUN include athletic programming and entrepreneurship training, all intended to positively engage at-risk youth in the community. “One of the most important things for me is that of the youth in our community, not one joined Boko Haram,” Ensign reflected. “So, we have a bit of a model of how to keep young people from being radicalized, and education again is the cornerstone of that.”
Throughout her talk, Ensign emphasized the importance of universities as agents of social change in the face of displacement and famine. AUN works to expand access to higher education through scholarships given to students in each of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones. The university has even initiated a campaign to offer full tuition to each of the women who escaped the Chibok kidnapping in 2014. Of the 57 who evaded captivity, 24 currently attend AUN, Ensign said.
AUN students are highly involved in API’s community development and educational programming, which in turn provides them with meaningful work experience outside of the classroom. “Every AUN student is either out there doing food distributions or teaching kids, and it’s changing how they see their careers,” Ensign reported.
Coincidentally, Ensign’s lecture fell on the same day as the UN General Assembly Summit for Refugees and Migrants, and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees was held the following day. AUN and API’s efforts to relieve the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people are also echoed on a local level through the work of the Arlington Refugee Project and the Vassar College Refugee Solidarity initiative, which sponsored the talk in conjunction with the Office of the President.
—Elena Schultz ’19
-Photo of refugees ©Sunday Alamba-Associated Press; Margee Ensign ©Vassar College-Karl Rabe.