President of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) Margee Ensign spoke to students, faculty and community members on Sept. 19 about the AUN’s work towards educating the nation’s young people and keeping the peace in times of turmoil. Using education to alleviate the pressures of displacement-induced impoverishment was a focal point in Ensign’s talk, one which Vassar College Refugee Solidarity, the student initiative begun last year to support international displaced persons, also strives for.
On Sept. 19, displacement was discussed at the first ever United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants. Despite the emphasis on the European migration, political and social unrest has caused an uptick in displacement the world over.
On April 14, 2014, the world was abruptly introduced to the political unrest in Nigeria when it learned of the capture of 276 Nigerian female students by the radical group Boko Haram. Nigeria is a rapidly growing country; its population doubles every 26 years. At this rate, by 2045, it will be the third-largest nation in the world. “Unfortunately, growing so fast, Nigeria has more children out of school than any country in the world,” noted Ensign. For precisely this reason, under her direction, the AUN, in conjunction with the Adawama Peace Initiative (API), runs a variety of programs to educate young people of all means.
The API and the AUN together have developed a variety of programs to serve their community’s needs including Peace through Sports, which fosters team-building and tolerance across religious and ethnic divides. Ensign told the story of meeting three boys who came to the AUN campus to play sports: “[A]ll of a sudden these big boys start saying, ‘It’s you or Boko Haram.’ Are the choices that stark here in our community? Apparently they are … It doesn’t take much, but it gave them a sense of belonging.” Other projects include a program to upcycle plastic into artistic items and another set of programs to feed local boys and girls a meal and teach them to read for a few hours a day.
Some of these initiatives align with Vassar’s own VC Refugee Solidarity program strives to achieve. Professor and Chair of History Maria Höhn agreed, “The student leaders working on the refugee solidarity initiative with me have always seen our initiative as a way to jump start and invigorate Vassar’s local engagement.” One of those student leaders, Anish Kanoria ’18 wrote, “I think institutions of higher education in the United States can and should do much, much more while responding to the crisis; and it shouldn’t just be within the realm of ‘educating ourselves.’ Awareness of historic and contemporary fact is essential…but we must be mindful that resources devoted towards this crisis shouldn’t only be consumed by ‘us.’ They should also reach those they intend to benefit.”
While the work that AUN-API does is lauded as beneficial, not everyone agrees with their methods. Assistant Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies Samson Opondo pointed out in an emailed statement that an institution like the AUN, modeled after an American university, could be seen as an agent of colonization, despite its good intentions. He continued, “Is this a case of an institution that appears as a deus ex machina offering ‘resolutions’ to complex African problems in ways that depoliticize some of the problems or even the conditions of the university’s presence and power in the society it engages?”
Despite potential problems in its execution, the idea of using education to empower vulnerable young people is noteworthy. Ensign asserted, “I really do believe universities now need to step up. We don’t think of universities as being agents of social change; we think of NGOs, we think of government, we think of international agencies. How about universities?” Höhn agreed in an emailed statement, “We are in danger now of losing a whole generation of young people, who without education, are going to be left with few alternatives. I think we need to think much more effectively about how the digital humanities can offer us new opportunities to connect with displaced youth. Lots of colleges are working on that now, and I am grateful that Vassar is part of that.”
It is especially important in these situations to support women’s education. Agents of displacement like Boko Haram are particularly stressful for women and children. Ensign described traveling with the API to bring supplies to a location where the survivors of a raid gathered. “We went into a room of about 500 women and girls, and I said to my Hausa translator, ask them, where are their husbands and boys? And the response [was], ‘Our husbands were burned alive and our boys were taken.’ And at that moment, I knew everything had changed.” Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford remarked in an emailed statement, “The media seem often to depict war as men killing each other and give less attention to the suffering of women and children unless it is something as dramatic as the Boko Haram kidnapping or the plight of exploited boy soldiers. I did not fully comprehend how women suffered daily until I was in Greece and talked to many women refugees who had lost male family members and were on their own with their children. I would like the media to make it clear that the victims of war are not simply those who engage in battle.”
The AUN-API has worked hard to assert women’s rights to education. One of the AUN’s working understandings is that women are essential to development. Several of the Chibok girls who escaped their capture by Boko Haram went on to be educated at the AUN. Ensign stands by her opinion that when women are educated, a community can move forward greatly. “These young women, for me, define what education is. They’ve been through so much, and they’re so strong, and they remind me that education changes everything.”