HEALING HEARTS

SUPPORTING SURVIVORS OF
BOKO HARAM VIOLENCE

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.

Hamma and her six children fled their home to escape Boko Haram. They now live in a camp for the internally displaced in northeast Nigeria.

Hamma and her six children fled their home to escape Boko Haram. They now live in a camp for the internally displaced in northeast Nigeria.

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.

At seven-months pregnant, Jamila, 22, climbed trees to escape her captors, Boko Haram. She has found safety in a local displacement camp.

At seven-months pregnant, Jamila, 22, climbed trees to escape her captors, Boko Haram. She has found safety in a local displacement camp.

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.

More than one million children live outside their homes because of Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria.

More than one million children live outside their homes because of Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria.

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.

"I've learned to
heal wounded hearts"

Martha, a former paediatric nurse, travels around northeast Nigeria as part of IOM's mental health teams. She offers counselling and workshops for adults, and runs games for children.

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.

Boys play with Hassan at Muna Garage Camp in Maiduguri.

Boys play with Hassan at Muna Garage Camp in Maiduguri.

Drawing sessions give children another way to express themselves and their experiences, alerting IOM staff to cases of distress, family instability or other common issues related to displacement and the ongoing conflict.

Drawing sessions give children another way to express themselves and their experiences, alerting IOM staff to cases of distress, family instability or other common issues related to displacement and the ongoing conflict.

"We love him so much."

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.

“Throughout my captivity, my spirit deep inside kept telling me, ‘God will protect you,' even when they pointed five guns at my head, that's what I believed.”

Tabitha lost a lot of weight during her captivity because of stress and starvation.

Tabitha lost a lot of weight during her captivity because of stress and starvation.

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.

Hauwa visits Tabitha and her daughter regularly at the camp for displaced people, where they are safe to restart their lives.

“Before I met Hauwa, I was having sleepless nights. I used to isolate myself, but these days I can even go to church groups for guidance.”

Tabitha says of IOM's mental health team leader, Hauwa.

"When baby Martha was late, Martha encouraged me and told me not to worry."

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.

"It makes me proud to put a smile on somebody's face."

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.

"Serving humanity is the best kind of work," Samuel says.

"Serving humanity is the best kind of work," Samuel says.

John and Mohammed lived under Boko Haram control for more than three years. John explains their journey:

"When everything was destroyed, we had to leave."

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.

Wakane Camp, Gwoza

Wakane Camp, Gwoza

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.

Amina from IOM teaches English and life skills to women who escaped Boko Haram, at a rehabilitation centre in Maiduguri. Many became young mothers during their captivity.

"I want to go back to my village and become a teacher" - Aisha

Classes are offered to young adults, men, and women.

Watch how we support displaced Nigerians with classes 
in basic English and life skills.

"Orange is my favourite colour. I'm really happy to get these knitting supplies. They remind me of home.

Tani (centre) sits with other displaced women and their new cap-knitting supplies in a host community in Maiduguri.

Tani (centre) sits with other displaced women and their new cap-knitting supplies in a host community in Maiduguri.

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."

Hassan from IOM gives cap-knitting material to Ali (second from right) and others in Kusheri community, Maiduguri

Hassan from IOM gives cap-knitting material to Ali (second from right) and others in Kusheri community, Maiduguri

"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.

"I like making people laugh."

Three years ago, Abba Rawa (seated in white) travelled 130 km in search of safety from Boko Haram. His unflagging good humour brings joy to those around him.

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.

Families relax inside one of IOM's safe spaces in Maiduguri.

Hamza, who works with IOM's mental health team in Banki, a town on the border with Cameroon, sums it all up:

"People greet me and say I gave them comfort. That's why we're here."

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.