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Addressing Child Trauma in Northern Nigeria a National Security Priority


The Boko Haram insurgency has not only killed thousands in northern Nigeria since 2009; tens of thousands of others, including children, have lived through, and witnessed, the violence. The government announced that it will soon begin training counselors in the north to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For now, the staff at Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, in Maiduguri, say they are doing the best they can on their own.

There are few resources available at the school for those orphaned by the insurgency. The school is allowing those orphaned by the conflict to enroll for free.

Headmaster Suleiman Aliyu hopes the school can restore some normalcy to pupils’ lives.

"We have primary science, English comprehension. We have quantitative. We have Arabic, health education. We have computer. We have handwriting and fine art, all these are subjects," said Aliyu. "You see some of them sitting alone, thinking. When you ask them, they say they remember this or they remember that. So in such cases, sometimes we take them out of class and we sit with them, so that they will see us as their parents, so they will not feel stigmatized."

The father of Khadiza, a student at the school, went to work one day and never came home. Suspected militants stormed her cousin Salma's house in the night and shot her father. Salma saw it happen.

"No, I don't think about it now. It was destiny,” said Salma.

The school’s founder and director, Zannah Mustapha, interjects. He says they "avoid memory lane."

"Because we always try to tell them that this is destiny, that God made it. So we try to put positive thinking in their mind so they will not have any grudge," said Mustapha.

The school opened in 2007 with just 36 pupils, and now has 420 and a waiting list of just over 1,000 names. The administrators of the school say that's directly related to the now four-year insurgency raging in Borno state.

It seems that every road you drive down in Maiduguri, every corner, every market you pass, has been the site of some kind of violence. On December 2 of this year, coordinated attacks struck several targets in the area.

Just weeks earlier, 14-year-old Bashir told reporters that he had been on his own since soldiers did a sweep in his neighborhood a year ago.

"They started beating us. I was begging them to leave my father, but they dragged him away," recalled Bashir.

Families have lost their homes, businesses and primary breadwinners.

Social workers say children here are showing signs of emotional stress like headaches, trouble sleeping and bedwetting. Psychologist and a senior counterterrorism adviser for the government, Fatima Akilu, stresses the dangers of growing up in such a situation.

"You might have kids that are not able to function because they are reliving trauma way into adulthood. You might have kids that grow up to lash out at others because that's what they're used to," said Akilu.

Akilu also said that helping this next generation of children process their experiences through play, music and the arts is more than just a mental health issue. It's a national security priority.

Abdulkareem Haruna and Heather Murdock contributed to this report.
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