By Tonny Onyulo | Catholic News Service
Sitting at his new desk with his classmates while enjoying learning at Mount St. Gabriel’s Secondary School in Makurdi, Peter Ogwuche thanked the Catholic Church for bringing him by offering him an education scholarship.
The 17-year-old boy had dropped out of school to seek safety in a refugee camp in Makurdi, capital of Benue state, after armed militants attacked his family in the middle of the night and killed his father and mother, leaving only children who had slept in a separate room.
“We survived the attack because our parents locked our bedroom door and hid the keys so the militants wouldn’t access and kill us,” he told Catholic News Service, noting that the church had already enrolled him in grade 10. “This is like a dream come true for me. I am happy that I have gone back to school. I want to study and become a teacher to impart knowledge to other refugees.”
Ogwuche is among thousands of young students receiving education scholarships from the Catholic Church, government, and nongovernmental organizations to help them pursue their dreams. Most beneficiaries are school-age orphans who lost their parents in attacks and were forced from their homes by the militants.
The West African nation of more than 200 million people continues to face many challenges posed by various terrorist groups and armed ethnic militants. In northern Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram — which rebranded itself Islamic State West Africa Province — has launched hundreds of attacks targeting Christians in places of worship, schools, markets and shopping malls, among others.
In the southwest and central part of the country, armed herdsmen known as Fulani, who are mostly of Islamic religion, have carried out attacks targeting Christian farmers, accusing them of using their land for agriculture and denying them an opportunity to graze their animals. And in June, attackers linked to the Islamic State West Africa Province group attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, killing 40 people and injuring at least 80 others.
The attacks across the country have left thousands of people dead and millions of others displaced. Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of Makurdi said his region has more than 27 camps with close to 2 million displaced Nigerians.
“Most of the people in these camps are children who are not accessing education after running away from their homes due to attacks by militant groups,” he said. “The schools found inside the camps are only primary schools, and many young people cannot proceed with their education after completing that level.”
Bishop Anagbe said his diocese was offering education scholarships to ensure these children continue with their education, with the aim of ending the cycle of terrorism and religious intolerance in this most populous country in Africa.
He said the diocese already had sponsored hundreds of students from various camps in the region and sent them to top Catholic schools to get quality education. Bishop Anagbe noted that scholarships cover tuition fees, school uniforms and shoes, food, health care and transport.
“Many youths in this region are not accessing education because schools are closed due to threats of attacks by militants,” he said. “We thought that if we didn’t take these children to school, we would have destroyed their future and the future of this region.”
Catechist Francis Olesegun said Boko Haram’s attacks on schools, students and teachers in the northern part of the country have heavily impacted education, leaving millions of school-going children without formal education.
Islamist militants have opposed Western education and forced residents, including children, to study in madrassas and other Islamic institutions that allow them to spread radical ideology to galvanize the Muslim population toward violence.
Boko Haram “has denied access to education to an entire generation of children in northern Nigeria,” said Olesegun, who worked in northern Nigeria before being transferred to the central part of the country. “They have destroyed schools and abducted children and teachers who dared go to school to seek formal education.”
He said the Nigerian Catholic Church was the leading provider of quality Western education, and it will ensure all children access the education. Olesegun said young people unable to return to school are trained in vocational skills such as masonry, computers, carpentry and joinery, metal work, photography, plumbing and tailoring.
He said state governments in northern Nigeria had launched a plan to enroll over 7,000 young refugees to access education and realize their capability. So far, he said that around 4,230 young refugees have already been enrolled in various schools across the region.
Father Remigius Ihyula said the Makurdi Diocese is ensuring that young refugees are educated during awareness workshops to prevent them from being drawn into radicalization and terrorism. He said the diocese also sponsors around 50 students annually across various camps to ensure they are not recruited into terror groups and become a threat to society.
“We should not watch these children waste away in crime,” said Father Ihyula, who also directs the diocesan justice and peace commission. “We must come together and help them get an education and become meaningful to society. … We will continue to ensure we reach out to many young refugees.”
Father Ihyula said the Makurdi Diocese could have wished to sponsor more students yearly to access education, but they don’t have enough resources to achieve such a goal.
Monica Olubayo, 18, agreed, said she had been forced to stay at the TseYandev camp in Benue state without accessing education because of a lack of school fees. Last year, she came to the camp after armed militants attacked her village.
“I have wanted to go back to school, but there is no money to pay my fees,” she said. “I have applied for many scholarships but have not been lucky to get one.”