Protestors demand international community ramp up efforts to rescue Nigerian schoolgirls

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“Please—rise up and take action now!” cried Comfort Ero, utilizing a megaphone at a May 10 rally in Vancouver to demand that Nigeria and the international community bolster their efforts to rescue hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls.

“Bring back our traumatized girls and ease the pain and shock of their parents!” continued Eros, president of the Nigeria-Canada Development Association of British Columbia, whose members turned out en masse at a Bring Back Our Girls rally to sing protest songs and pound traditional African drums at Robson Square in the city’s downtown. Another rally is planned for tomorrow morning (May 13) on Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge.

On April 14, 276 students were abducted in a midnight raid of a girls’ school in Chibok in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno. Many of the pupils had travelled there to take final exams. The abductors were members of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin.” Initially, the group said it would sell the girls in the marketplace. However, a new video released May 12 showed about 130 of the students, seemingly unharmed, while Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau demanded the release of imprisoned insurgents in exchange for the girls’ freedom. The Nigerian government has been criticized for its ineffectual response to the schoolgirls’ kidnapping.

The 14-year-old terrorist group, bent on creating an Islamic state under Sharia law, began insurgent attacks in 2009. It has terrorized the Sahel region, killing 1,500 people, including school kids and police, and targeted UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. Nigerian-Canadian education consultant Joshua Afuye, who was at the May 10 rally, is worried about Boko Haram’s militarism and believes that the group is linked to terrorist organizations, reportedly al-Qaeda. “It’s an international network,” Afuye said. “They are getting international support.”

Such malicious terrorism requires a coordinated pushback. To this end, a strategy to find and rescue the girls is being undertaken by Cameroon, Niger Republic, the United States, Chad, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. (Canada has offered surveillance equipment to help in the search.) Ero said that, unless the terrorists are stopped, parents will cease sending their girls to school. This would a tragedy for the country, she said. “Nigerians have a saying, ‘If you educate a woman, you are educating the whole nation.’ ”

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Burnaby’s Bryne Creek Secondary student Merve, a Turkish immigrant, called the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls “a horrendous act. These girls belong in school and they aren’t for sale.” Her schoolmate Yasmine, a Jordanian-Canadian, added that the kidnapping is a “major blow for the progress of women.”
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Nigerian-born Priye Iworima, who came to Canada in 2004 when she was 16, is fearful for the schoolgirls’ safety but refuses to give up hope. “At least there is action now.” But there must be no more delays, Iworima said. “Their lives are at stake. The action needs to be immediate.”

Return to Afghanistan inspires hope — and warning

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Mellissa Fung

How does one pass the time while a chained captive in a dusty hole in Afghanistan? Journalist Mellissa Fung, who was on assignment in 2008 with CBC News when she was kidnapped while exiting a refugee camp, prayed—a lot. She also smoked—12 cigarettes a day, carefully meted out over a 24-hour period: half a cigarette at the top of the hour, the other half at the bottom of the hour. Fung also contemplated the lives of the many refugees and orphans she had met—children like Eid with the pink headscarf, who wailed with grief when she was forcibly separated from Fung. Even held captive, with her life hanging in the balance, Fung realized she was better off than many of the refugees she had encountered.

Fung’s captivity ended 28 days later when Afghan intelligence secured a prisoner swap. Afghanistan and its people, however, haunted Fung upon her return to Canada, and her book, Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, was written in part to try to reconcile with the ordeal.

Fung spoke about her harrowing odyssey to a crowd of more than 200 on April 29 at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver. The event—organized by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan—showcased Fung’s 15-minute documentary, “Return to Afghanistan,” which aired on CBC’s The National this past December. “A lot of people thought I was crazy to go back,” says Fung. However, dismayed at the negative coverage about Afghanistan dominating the Western media, Fung wanted to return to tell “good stories” about the country. Fung pointed to the remarkable statistics: more than 10 million children in school, with more than 40 percent of these girls, in comparison to rampant illiteracy under Taliban rule.

Fung related other stories about the people of Afghanistan, remarking upon one orphan Afghan boy whose face was severely disfigured by burns. At one time, such a boy would have been an ideal target for Taliban recruiters, but he was determined to focus upon getting an education. If educational opportunities had been available to her captors, Fung said, perhaps they “wouldn’t have been doing what they were doing.”

Education has become a powerful tool to improve the standard of living for Afghan families. NGOs like Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan have implemented literacy and teacher-training programs that have significantly helped the Central Asia nation recover from a protracted civil war. However, said Fung, Afghanistan still needs support from Western nations to ensure that the tremendous gains that have been made aren’t lost, due to a still-precarious economy and security concerns about Taliban insurgency.

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