By Emmanuel Ogebe, Special to ASSIST News Service
NIGERIA (ANS – December 24, 2017) — The iron wrought gate is slowly pulled open by the security man, and then my driver pulls into the compound. As I step out of the car, some kids see me and begin to chant excitedly, “Jesus.” I wish…Actually the other part of the chant is “food.” They call me by the name of the donated food we shipped to them from Minnesota, USA, right, “Jesus Food!”
That’s my new name. My former name was “Manna”, you guessed right! I was named after the donated food we brought them from Georgia USA in 2014.
In a sense this present mission was like manna from heaven. Kind of last minute a Christian group in Virginia USA decided to help persecuted Christian kids in Nigeria for the very first time by throwing them a Christmas party.
It’s a break away from the misery, the hunger and the angst of Christmas.
You see, Boko Haram are the terrorists that stole Christmas. The jihadist group on a religious war to exterminate Christianity in the largest country in the world with an equal number of Muslims and Christians, celebrates Christmas with particularly murderous multi-city attacks.
In Nigeria, the world’s deadliest terror has exchanged pleasant Christmas memories for sad ones.
Boko Haram’s first terrorist attack was on Christmas Eve 2003 — a tradition it has maintained for 14 years this month.
13-year-old Sarah says Islamists didn’t like the way Christians were happy at Christmas so one year they burnt her mum’s farm. Her mum forgave and planted a bigger farm the next year. They were attacked again and this time fled for their lives.
They trekked through the dreaded Sambisa forest for days and days without food and a pregnant woman fleeing with them feared her fetus would die from malnourishment as Sarah’s mum tried to keep hope alive. Later after they got to civilization they would learn she lost the baby. This is a lot to have seen and internalized several years ago. Sarah was under 10-years-old when it happened.
In spite of the hunger and the disordered world of displacement, one thing has changed for Sarah.
When she arrived at the camp in 2015, she couldn’t read.
After another kid rebuffed her request to teach her, Sarah challenged herself to learn on her own. Today she has come first in her class with the highest GPA consecutively.
Sarah proudly tells me that her mother went to the orphanage school too. She wanted to learn to read and write after she saw her daughter learn so quickly.
Sarah’s mum has left the camp since last summer looking for a way to support what remains of her family…
Despite everything, Sarah has a fun streak. When her dorm house won a soccer match 5-0, she and I danced a jig.
Sarah is an articulate, brilliant, hardworking and joyful refugee kid – a diamond in the deep, dirt rough.
Carols sung, Jesus birthday cake eaten, Santa’s gifts of shoes to 158 kids done, trunk emptied to drive off for the day, the chant in my mind’s ear was “Sarah! Sarah!”.
I had come all the way from America to be blessed and inspired by her.
Glad Tidings from the Mountain Top
The next day we went to the camp to say “goodbye” as I began the journey back to safety and comfort in the States.
The camp caretaker told me excitedly, “After you left yesterday we got a call from the Pastor who brought Eddy and Sarah here.” I was stunned. Now let me tell you about Eddy.
I had met him the previous day with Sarah but his story was depressing. Eddy described in painstaking detail having to flee Boko Haram terrorists who were killing Christians from house to house, hiding under a bed for 34 hours, being dressed up as a girl by a Muslim woman to help him escape certain slaughter after getting lost from his family. After several months, a kind Pastor ferried he and Sarah to safety in this refugee camp.
He told us that in 3 years he didn’t know if his family is dead or alive. He’d even lost touch with the pastor who brought him to the orphanage in 2015. It was such a dreadful and depressing end to an interview!
We prayed with him and four other child survivors that evening. What more can you do? Carols have been sung, Santa’s gone, the music fades and the gnawing pain regains…praying is the least and also the most we can do.
Now the caretaker tells me, a couple hours after we prayed, he got a call from the pastor saying, “Eddy’s parents are alive.”
Excitedly, I phoned and asked the pastor where they had been. They were living/hiding atop a mountain besieged by the terrorists for years!
I asked to see Eddy who was in class. The soft spoken boy described how he was summoned to the admin office. “They told me to sit down” he says.
I laughed when he said that. Such good news could be too much for someone. The camp managers had figured out you can’t collapse from shock if you are seated!
I immediately gave the funds for his travel home for the reunion though we are thinking it’s safer for them to come down instead.
One of my team members said “this is the best Christmas gift Eddy could possibly have gotten.” We believe it was God’s icing on our Jesus birthday cake!
I am still in a daze at seeing this miracle happen first hand. God’s got it altogether. He just wants you to take a step of faith and pray then the miracle is released!
Today is not Cyber Monday or Giving Tuesday. It’s just a great day for a kid who has lived without hope and with uncertainty for years.
I had every reason not to go on this trip. The fact that this happened while I was right there says to me, “God knows exactly where you are right now and brought you here to see this and be inspired.”
Human rights work is tedious, heartbreaking and depressing work. Occasionally the sun rises on the gloom. I was glad to catch the glimmer of a sunrise – and a smile – on Eddy’s face.
There’s still work to be done. If he travels to the northeast where he fled years ago, he might run into terrorist’s ambushes which target Christmas travelers.
It will cost us more to bring his family over to the camp where he is. We’ll need to put up a structure for the family to stay in and they’ll need medical evaluation and care after having lived in caves for years!
As I described the situation on the mountain to a colleague, I remembered that the early church Christians when persecuted by Rome hid in the catacombs. That is precisely what is happening on the mountain of Gwoza.
The earliest reports I had of people trapped on the mountains go back to 2013. These people have essentially been kicked out of our contemporary civilization for about 4 years. We can’t make up for the lost years but we can try to welcome them back and enrich the next years.
God preserved them for us the same way he preserved baby Jesus as a refugee in Egypt from Herod’s massacre of infants that first Christmas.
Sarah and Eddy still remain in the valley of the shadow of death. Muslim herdsmen attacked the community in which their camp is located a month earlier. 27 people who went to the army for protection ended up dead. Sarah and others who stayed in the defenseless camp survived…
Ultimately Christ came to reconcile mankind to God just as Eddy reunites with his family. It’s a Christmas miracle all over again.
Post script: On December 22, as Christians gathered and sang Christmas carols in Kaduna State, Muslim herdsmen attacked and killed 4 wounding many in one of multiple attacks Christmas weekend in northern Nigeria
Photo captions: 1) Eddy (in red cap) with Emmanuel Ogebe, a human rights lawyer and advocate for the persecuted (right) and other child survivors of jihadi terrorism at the camp in northern Nigeria. 2) Niger Delta Militants. 3) Eddy pictured during his interview. 4) Boko Haram has attacked many schools in Nigeria. 5) Emmanuel Ogebe.
About the writer: Emmanuel Ogebe is an international human rights lawyer and religious freedom advocate. His e-mail is: Justiceforjos@gmail.com
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