A Nigerian girl recounts her horror-filled tale from Boko Haram abduction, conversion and marriage to student life at a university

NGR171201AA005ABUJA, Nigeria – Amina Ali Nkeki was calm as she recalled her ordeal in the captivity of Boko Haram terrorists.

She was 17 when she was among the 275 girls abducted from a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014.

“They came in the night. They shot sporadically into the air. They gathered us together. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t do what they said. They quarreled among themselves. At the end, they decided to take us away.”

She suffered sexual assault and other abuse at the hands of the Islamic State-linked militants before she managed to escape last year.

“I never thought I would live to see another day,” she said. "That I am alive today is a miracle.”

Now Nkeki is preparing for another miracle. An American church has agreed to send Nkeki and four other young women who escaped from the clutches of the Boko Haram to Hope International University, a Christian school in southern California.

The Church of the Servant King in Gardena, California has agreed to pay the women’s travel expenses as well as tuition and housing costs that could amount to more than $30,000 a year, according to the university’s website.

The church similarly sponsored 35 Cambodians in the 1980s. Congregants felt like it was time to reach out to someone needy overseas again, said Senior Pastor Rich Read. “We believe Jesus is who he says he is: a man for others,” said Read. “His mandate is to love God and one another. As his followers, we’re trying to express his will. For us, faith is action.”

Nkeki is now studying at the American University in Nigeria, a private school that is unaffiliated with the U.S. government. But when she discovered her good fortune earlier this year, she instantly felt that forgetting her traumatic experiences under the Boko Haram would be easier in the US.

“I just couldn’t believe my ears,” Nkeki said. “I just can’t find words to describe how I felt. It was a message of a new life.”

Most of the Chibok girls have escaped Boko Haram but more than 100 are still missing. Despite the success of the #BringBackOurGirls movement to highlight the plight of the students, their parents are at their wits’ ends.

“We have been trying to appeal to our local leaders but no one seems interested in briefing us about any effort or action by the federal government to secure the release of our daughters,” a group of parents recently wrote in an open letter to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We feel neglected."

Since launching its military offensive in 2009, Boko Haram attacks have killed more than 20,000 and displaced more than 2 million others in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger, according a recent United Nations report.

Boko Haram insurgents still run rampant throughout the northeastern reaches of the West African country. But Nigerian forces have been tightening their noose around the group, recently announcing that the militants had been extirpated throughout Borno.

That's cold comfort to Nkeki who hasn't been able to let go of her memories. The Boko Harm soldiers forced her to trek for three days to Mbula, a remote town under their control.

“They burnt down the school library and carted our food supplies,” she continued, recalling the first night she was their hostage. “Boko Haram forced us to trek for over two hours and to sleep under a Tamarind tree inside Sambisa Forest.”

The Boko Haram men then asked the girls to convert to Islam, she said. “They threatened to kill all of us if we refused,” said Nkeki, who is Christian. “After they left we got together. Since there was nothing we could do, we decided to go along in order to save our lives.”

Despite threats from Boko Haram, several girls who were Christian or practiced local religions refused to convert.

“They gathered us together one Tuesday afternoon,” said Nkeki, who refused to convert. “They expressed satisfaction that we have all converted to Islam. They asked us if marriage in Islam is good or not. We told them there was no way we could get married without the consent of our parents. We told them our religion does not allow such marriages.”

Punishment followed.

“For us that refused to marry, they detailed us to do menial jobs in their homes, sweeping, washing clothes and doing dishes,” Nkeki said. “They said as their slaves they can choose to sleep with us. They were passing us around among themselves. We saw it was even better to get married because only one person could be sleeping with us.”

As a result, Nkeki was forced to marry Mohammed Hayyatu in order to avoid being passed around. The son of a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hayyatu, was disillusioned with his life of violence under Boko Haram, and confided to her that he was fed up with the group. 

He planned to escape.

After the Nigerian military sacked Njimiya, a Boko Haram stronghold, they got their chance.

“The Boko Haram were running away for safety,” she said. “My husband and I saw our opportunity to escape.”

They eventually fell in love but her parents raised hell for Hayyatu after their escape, claiming he abducted Amina. But the relented because she had a baby with him while still in captivity.

She began planning their future.

Meanwhile, Read said the church anticipated helping the women and their children come to the country, but not the husbands immediately. Years ago, they originally planned bringing a few Cambodians to the US but took more eventually as they got to know their guests, he said.

More pressingly, the church is preparing a fundraising drive to help cover Nkeki and the other women’s expenses. Read anticipated reaching their target. The church and the women found each other, he said. Providence would do the rest.

“We think there is help that comes from places that we don’t know about,” he said. “Amazing things can happen.”

Photo: December 1, 2017-Abuja, Nigeria. Portrait of Amina Ali Nkeki, 20, at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola in northeast Nigeria. Nigeria's federal government arranged for the released girls to be admitted into the AUN. Nkeki is currently undertaking a one-year preparatory course in social science. She hopes to study accounting so she can work as an accountant in the future.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Amina Ali Nkeki 12/01/2017

Story/photo publish date: 12/23/17

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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