After escaping the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, these Nigerian girls are adjusting to a strange new life in small-town Oregon.
Grace slept through the sounds of gunfire in the night. Exhausted from final exams at her boarding school in Nigeria, she awoke when her roommate Mary prodded her, “Get up!”
Suddenly, the girls saw a gang of men spreading across the school grounds. “They said they were soldiers. They said they were there to protect us,” Grace says. “They told us all to stay together.”
Terrified, the girls did as they were told. The men made their way to the pantry, grabbing all the food. Then they headed for the administrative office. On the way, they began shouting, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” It means “God is great” in Arabic. They lit the office on fire.
“We realized they were impostors,” Grace says. “They were not there to help us.” But it was too late to run. The girls were forced into trucks at gunpoint. Grace sat with Mary as their vehicle roared off into the dawn. As the school burned in their wake, lighting the sky, Grace thought, These men are going to kill us.
That was more than a year ago, in April. Terrorist group Boko Haram seized hundreds of school girls from the town of Chibok, threatening to sell them as slaves.
Global outrage followed. Social media erupted with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie joined the rallying cry. A few dozen of the kidnapped girls managed to escape. Yet at press time, more than 200 remained missing, despite a recent military offensive that freed hundreds of other captives.
Boko Haram has waged an increasingly bloody war in recent years, beheading, burning alive, and gunning down thousands of people in an effort to create an Islamic state and wipe out Western influence from the country’s schools. At least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of last year, according to Amnesty International. Some were reportedly stoned to death.
Today, Grace is living a world away from all that, at a high school in Canyonville, Oregon, a town ringed by mountains and towering redwoods. She and three other Chibok girls are quietly finishing their education at the Canyonville Christian Academy, a cozy boarding school with students from more than a dozen countries. Grace wants her tale of escape to be told. But she is not too eager to do the telling.
I sense this the moment I meet her. It’s a chilly spring Tuesday, and she and the other Chibok girls are leaning against a chain-link fence, relaxing after track practice. Cathy Lovato, the head of school, introduces me, and the girls turn to me, their faces suddenly serious. Grace barely makes eye contact.
For the girls, arriving in America was like landing on Mars. They had grown up in deeply poor, rural villages with no Internet access and in some cases a sole landline phone for the entire village. In Oregon, everything was new: winter weather, puffy coats, remote controls, trampolines, yogurt-covered pretzels, cheerleaders, ice skating, karaoke. They spoke only a little English.
The first girl to arrive, Mercy, came this past November. School president Doug Wead recalls Mercy’s first-ever encounter with an escalator. As she stepped onto the moving staircase at the airport, she panicked and dropped her bag. That night, at the hotel, she took a bath and stayed there for hours. “Later, my wife checked in on her, and she was asleep on the bed, lying on top of the fluffy comforter,” says Wead. “Her coat was on, fully zipped.”
The girls came to Canyonville with the help of a nonprofit group in Virginia, the Jubilee Campaign, and activists from Nigeria. The girls, all of whom are Christian, live in constant uncertainty, unsure whether relatives are alive or dead, whether their homes have been burned. They keep in touch with loved ones by phone when possible amid the chaos.
In a campus lounge overlooking a creek and a bridge, Grace arrives for her interview on a Wednesday afternoon. Wearing skinny jeans and pink flip-flops, she looks like a typical American student, except for the deep anxiety on her face. Her counselor, Debbie Horton, is there with me. The Chibok girls, all 18 years old, have been meeting with the counselor since their arrival. Grace came in December with classmates Sarah and Deborah, a few weeks after Mercy. Cosmopolitan is withholding their last names for safety. Grace recently lost her brother, two uncles, and a cousin, all killed by Boko Haram.
The youngest of five children, Grace says she imagined becoming a teacher when she finished boarding school in Chibok. Speaking in her native language and using a translator, she begins to cry, covering her face with one hand, while her counselor holds the other. On the night of the terrorist attack, she says, the men drove the girls to a sprawling forest, shouting, “You should not have been going to school! We are in control of you now.”
It was daylight, she recalls, when they arrived at the forest hideout. “The men said there was nowhere to run,” says Grace. They described a “wide-open space” beyond the trees, where runaway girls would be caught.
Grace puts her head down on the table. There is a long silence. Outside, students stroll by with tennis rackets, laughing. The counselor asks Grace if she wants to stop. She says no and continues, her head still down on the table, speech muffled. She recalls an overwhelming urge to escape the camp. She told Mary she had a plan: She would ask the men if she could go to the bathroom — in the bush — and then run. Mary wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea. The men were escorting girls to the bush and could shoot them dead.
Says Grace, “I decided I would rather die trying to escape than be killed by these men.”
She stuck to her plan, running for her life. As she crashed through the dense, thorny forest, she had no idea where she was going. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see other girls fleeing as well — shooting off in all directions. Mary was one of them. She had decided to run after all. But Mary was running in the opposite direction of Grace.
Grace made it to a nearby house, where another girl had arrived too. But they were far from safe. Men from Boko Haram burst in, asking the family, “Are you harboring any girls?” Grace, in hiding, heard the family say no, risking death.
Later, the girls set out for a village, where residents pointed them toward Chibok. On the road, the girls braved a ride with a stranger in a van. He drove them to a military post. The soldiers there gave them food, then headed to the forest to look for more girls.
Grace spent two days at the military post, she says, before the soldiers returned — with no girls. A few days later, she was driven back to Chibok. The town was in a state of panic, Grace says, with parents crying in the streets. There, Grace learned the fate of her friend Mary: She had made it out alive.
Grace’s brother — the one recently killed — brought her home. “My parents cried and cried when they saw me,” she says. Later, an uncle heard that activists were helping the Chibok girls. A plan to come to America took shape
Mercy meets me with a shy smile, modeling a pair of donated tan suede boots. We talk casually in English, and she giggles about her adjustment to America. The school is arranging for her to stay in Washington, D.C., for a coming break. I tell her the U.S. president lives there with his family, showing her some photos of Michelle Obama on my phone. She studies them, transfixed. She had grown up with little exposure to American leaders or celebrities.
She tells me she likes ramen noodles spiced with cayenne pepper. She had never used a computer before Canyonville. When the school gave her an iPad, it was the first time she had seen one. She and her friends took so many selfies, they maxed out the storage. Mercy says she loves basketball games, where she cheers for both teams. When a dean advised her to root only for her own team, she replied, “But they are all students, yes? I will cheer for all.”
When we turn to the abduction, her demeanor changes. Gone is the smile, replaced by a blank, faraway expression. It is as if she has gone to another world.
Mercy jumped off a speeding truck as the terrorists drove the girls to the camp, taking the chance that she might break her legs when she slammed to the ground. She found her way back to Chibok, hiding in the bush along the way. Today, she is not up for saying much about Boko Haram. There is one important thought she wants to convey though. “I pray to God to forgive them and cure their hearts,”she says in her native language. “I do not want revenge.”
Sarah tells me quietly in English about her own experience. A petite girl in sparkly earrings, she happened to be away from the school on the night of the attack. Staying with a friend nearby to help with a wedding, she woke in the night to the sound of men shouting as they torched the school. The next morning, she went to the charred grounds. “No one is there,” she says. “They are all gone.”
Among the missing was her cousin Mercy — the same Mercy here in Canyonville. Sarah and her relatives feared they would never see her again. “Everyone is asking ‘Where is Mercy? Where is Mercy?’ My grandmother, cry, cry, cry,” she says. She dissolves into tears. “I don’t like to talk about Boko Haram. They are bad people,” she says. “Sometimes when you sleep, you dream about them.”
As she speaks, she, too, seems to disappear into the past. Horton helps bring her back, talking about her blouse, the table, the color of her eyes. The girls sometimes get lost in a traumatic memory, Horton explains later, and they need help to connect back to the present and feel safe. The fourth girl, Deborah, is not ready to tell her story. “Sometimes they seem so young,” Horton says, “and sometimes, so old.”
The girls will be in Canyonville for two years. The school had planned for only one, Wead says, but then the teachers realized the girls had the equivalent of a grade-school education. It costs around $40,000 a girl per year for housing, tuition, and other expenses, he says. The school started a fund but has raised only a fraction of the cost. Still, Wead says, there was “never any question” about helping when Jubilee floated the idea.
Wead hopes the girls will get scholarships to college. In the meantime, the deans are helping them navigate their new world — how to use a stapler, the difference between deodorant and a glue stick, why people drag trees indoors at Christmas. (Fake trees, even weirder.) The girls are on Facebook for the first time. “We had to spend some hard-core time retrieving passwords,” says dean Kim Roome. They are learning how to private-message, she adds. “They’ll send me a note saying nothing but ‘Hi.'”
Another adventure: online shopping. “They were amazed,” says dean Kristi O’Donnell. “They said, ‘All these different stores sell dresses?'” Skimpy swimsuits also surprised the girls, who grew up wearing traditional long dresses. When the school took the kids to a water park, a student offered to lend Mercy a one-piece, recalls O’Donnell. “Mercy said, ‘Oh no, I could not wear that.'”
There are other cultural disconnects — like getting to class on time. “They’re starting to understand,” says Lovato. “Now I’ll see them running across campus to get to class.”
There are rough moments too. “They’re teenage girls. They miss their moms and their families,” says Roome. “They want to go home for the summer, but it’s too dangerous. They have nightmares. They are terrified that Boko Haram will burn the school down. Sometimes they want to sleep with the lights on. They say, ‘But it’s so black. It’s so black.’ I tell them, ‘They are not coming for you.'”
Roome and O’Donnell live in the girls’ dorm and had to tell Grace that her beloved brother had been killed. “We sat with her and held her hand,” says Roome. “All the girls were there. We told them they are in our hearts.” The girls didn’t feel like eating much for days.
When not confronting their past, the girls are in good spirits. On a Thursday afternoon, they emerge from class all smiles. They greet me warmly, a complete turnaround from their wary greeting the day we first met. They’re relieved now; they’ve told their stories.
At track practice later that day, Mercy comes off the field and picks up her iPad, joining a cluster of teachers and kids on a bench. She is looking at a report about the missing girls back home. She scrolls to a photo of herself with the president of Nigeria. Then she shows me a shot of men riding on a truck bed, waving guns in the air, their faces wrapped in scarves.
“This, Boko Haram,” she says. A day ago, she wasn’t able to talk much about her ordeal. But today, she wants me to see.
The school admissions director, Ed Lovato, hears all of this from the bench. He turns to Mercy and tells her gently, “You’re safe here, Mercy. You’re safe.”