Eight years of Boko Haram violence has forced more than 1.8 million people from their homes, leaving belongings, communities and lives behind, across Nigeria’s northeast. More than one million of them are children.
Boko Haram has abducted at least 4,000 girls and women in northeast Nigeria, far exceeding the nearly 300 girls taken from their school in Chibok in 2014, sparking the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign and drawing attention to the conflict. Many say they were forced to witness killing or suffered sexual violence.
Boko Haram has also used children as suicide bombers and has forcibly recruited countless boys and men to commit violent acts.
It seems the large-scale conflict has left no one in the region unscathed.
Since 2014, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has provided counselling and group support, along with many other activities, to more than 200,000 people affected by the conflict.
The mental health and psychosocial support programme in northeast Nigeria began by providing support to the families of the girls who were taken from Chibok. Today, more than 120 IOM staff and volunteers travel around the region to help heal wounded hearts.
Leading games, singing and dancing is just one of the ways IOM’s mental health teams support Nigerians, particularly children, affected by the ongoing conflict.
These activities give children a safe space to play and engage many in additional support, like counselling or medical attention through IOM's humanitarian partners. IOM staff are trained to spot and assist children who show signs of distress, such as being withdrawn from others during playtime.
"I love... everything about doing theatre and playing football," says Modou Mamman of IOM's regular mental health activities at the camp for internally displaced people where he lives in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram. The 15-year-old's parents were killed in the conflict.
Sixteen-year-old Mariam is a survivor of Boko Haram sexual violence. She escaped the group's hold two months ago. Through regular counselling - to accept her baby despite the challenging circumstances, she is adjusting to life as a mother.
IOM's mental health staff encourage acceptance and help fight stigma through counselling and group support. Many survivors and their children face stigma within their communities and families. Many women also reject their babies, but Mariam and her family are now welcoming this beautiful baby boy.
Boko Haram kidnapped Tabitha from her home in northeast Nigeria.One year later, she escaped and was able to speak to her 13-year-old daughter, who fled to Cameroon with relatives, for the first time since their separation. “When I called she kept repeating, ‘mama, are you still alive?’ I told her, ‘don’t worry, you’ll see me,’” Tabitha says.
Her daughter’s name, Godiya, means ‘thankful to God’ in Hausa, their native language. She says she’s even more thankful now that they are back together.
Community members who have had similar experiences are gathered together to create support systems.
Tabitha says of IOM's mental health team leader, Hauwa.
Mary fled to Cameroon for 15 months after Boko Haram took over her town in eastern Borno - the state hardest hit by the group. Last year, she and her five kids moved to an abandoned building in Maiduguri, Borno's capital, where she gave birth to her baby girl, Martha.
IOM's Martha visits Mary and her namesake several times a week in their makeshift home in an abandoned building to provide counselling and group support to her and many others.
IOM's Samuel says of his work with John and Mohammed. "It helps to talk to Samuel and other men about things that affect us, like job loss," says John, who worked as a photographer before the conflict.
John and Mohammed lived under Boko Haram control for more than three years. John explains their journey:
Today, they both live with their children at a displacement camp in Gwoza, a former Boko Haram stronghold near the border with Cameroon. They participate in regular focus group discussions led by Samuel and other IOM staff.
Focus group discussions for men and women provide an opportunity to share experiences and address issues, like food shortages or gender-based violence - characteristic of the conflict.
Groups meet in camps and in communities where people fleeing violence have sought shelter.
"Orange is my favourite colour. I'm really happy to get these knitting supplies. They remind me of home.
Knitting caps used to be my business," explains Tani Adamu. "The last time I knitted anything was two years ago, before the crisis forced us to flee."
"I'm from Konduga. I've been displaced without my family since 2013. I live alone here," says 25-year-old Ali Bakali. "I started knitting traditional caps in Konduga and now I'll be able to do it again."
IOM's livelihood activities, like cap-knitting, tailoring, pasta-making and barbering, are used to provide additional support to people who need it most, such as young adults, single mothers and those who lost family members or experienced violence in the conflict, among others.
Providing a safe space for Abba Rawa and other displaced men, women, and children to talk, laugh and play helps the community heal together. This year, IOM built mental health and psychosocial support resource centres at nine locations across northeast Nigeria. Many include volleyball courts and space for football.
Hamza, who works with IOM's mental health team in Banki, a town on the border with Cameroon, sums it all up:
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.