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A smile in the sorrow

Rebecca Dali has become a lifeline for Nigerians traumatized by abuse and Islamist violence

A smile in the sorrow

Rebecca Dali (Courtesy of World Watch Monitor)

Excited chatter filled the air inside a gated compound in the town of Bukuru, just south of Jos in north-central Nigeria. It was graduation morning at the Center for Caring, Empowerment, and Peace Initiatives (CCEPI), and 32 widows and orphans were preparing for a ceremony to celebrate their completion of the center’s skills program. In one bedroom, several women applied makeup and donned matching T-shirts. Outside the compound, staff members loaded a truck with sewing machines, knitting equipment, and computers the students would receive at the ceremony. 

These students and Boko Haram survivors, who had learned skills enabling them to earn a living, owed a debt of thanks not just to the center, but to its founder, Rebecca Dali. Known internationally for her humanitarian work, Dali has spent years assisting Nigerians suffering from poverty, widowhood, and more recently, violence and abuse perpetrated by the Boko Haram terrorist organization.

In the compound courtyard one graduate, Esther Bitrus, sat on interlocking floor tiles as she finished eating her breakfast, her baby firmly seated against her chest. Nineteen-year-old Bitrus finished the center’s nine-month sewing program the same day her daughter turned 9 months old. “Double celebration,” she said, laughing. 

She had more to celebrate. Bitrus had come to the center a year earlier after escaping captivity from Boko Haram’s stronghold in Sambisa Forest, Borno state. She became pregnant with her daughter after one of the militants took her as a wife. After her escape, Bitrus named the baby after Dali.

Remarkably, some 350 babies have been named after “Mama Rebecca” since 2014—names given as gestures of gratitude from hundreds of mothers Dali has helped over the years.

Rebecca Dali, sometimes called “the Dorcas of our time” by Boko Haram survivors, set up CCEPI to care for the poor and orphans in her native Borno state in Nigeria’s northeast long before Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency there. As the violence intensified, Dali adjusted her services to assist the thousands of Christians and Muslims who have lost husbands, parents, and properties. Dali and her center have helped teach trade skills to refugees and have assisted young women who’ve endured kidnapping by Boko Haram.

Although Boko Haram has suffered territorial losses amid a Nigerian military offensive against the group, thousands of people continue to suffer from the conflict. And the kidnappings continue: Boko Haram militants abducted 110 girls, some as young as 11, from a boarding school in the town of Dapchi in February. The militants freed most of the girls in March, but did not immediately release at least one Christian whom witnesses said had refused to convert to Islam. A few girls reportedly died in captivity. For survivors, the trauma of their experience becomes a major hurdle to reintegrating with society and finding personal stability.

At the graduation ceremony in Jos, 57-year-old Dali, dressed in a traditional black-and-white cloth and headscarf, encouraged the graduates: “I have walked the same path that you are going through. My history is terrible, but I did not lose hope, so I don’t want you to lose hope.”

Ola Lanre/Reuters/Newscom

Some of the newly released Dapchi schoolgirls on March 21 (Ola Lanre/Reuters/Newscom)

DALI GREW UP IN A POOR FAMILY in Borno state and hawked traditional bean cake on the streets as a child. When she was 6 years old, a man raped her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Driven by the desire to help others with similar experiences, Dali started CCEPI in 1989. For years, the initiative focused on providing academic scholarships to orphaned and vulnerable children and providing care for widows and the elderly. 

The calls seeking Dali’s help increased in 2011 after her husband, the Rev. Samuel Dali, became president of the EYN Church of the Brethren. That same year, Boko Haram began staging mass attacks.

Once, Dali received an urgent call to help a woman after the militant group murdered her husband and two children. She arrived to find the woman screaming in a pool of their blood. Dali called some nearby soldiers to help pick up the bodies, and she helped clean up the woman and calm her down. “The grief was too much,” Dali says.

Boko Haram’s violence landed on the Dalis’ doorstep in 2014, when the terrorists overran their church’s headquarters in Borno. Rebecca and her husband fled the Oct. 29 attack with a bullet in the back of their Toyota Hilux four-wheel drive. They relocated to Jos, Plateau state’s capital city, where Samuel set up new headquarters. 

As the crisis ravaged the northeast, many Muslims moved farther north, while thousands of Christians fled to Jos. Dali continued to travel back to the northeast while assisting the refugees in their new home. She partnered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international groups like the International Rescue Committee and the Church of the Brethren in the United States. Together they provided food aid, sanitation and hygiene assistance, trauma counseling, and medical aid to people within and outside refugee camps. The support extended to refugee camps in neighboring Cameroon, where residents also suffer from Boko Haram violence. 

Dali’s center works with three legal practitioners to verify and prosecute cases of sexual abuse within refugee camps and host communities. The center also sent out monitoring staff to gather evidence of Boko Haram atrocities. Dali showed me several bulky, green hardcover books detailing the number of people displaced and killed due to the conflict, based on direct reports from family members. One of the books, recording people killed by Boko Haram from 2008 to 2015, lists the names of more than 40,000 individuals, along with their villages and the name of the family member who confirmed their death.

Dali’s work in the northeast has led to close encounters with Boko Haram. On Aug. 30, 2014, she was driving to Chibok in Borno state when some Boko Haram militants stopped her. She prayed quietly as they started to grill her with questions. The terrorists told her they were familiar with her work and thanked her for assisting both Christians and Muslims. They ordered her to turn back, saying some of the other militants might not know her. “I’ve never been afraid of these places,” she says. “If my organization is not there, who will go?”

AS THE CRISIS PERSISTS, Dali has found many refugees sitting idly in the camps. CCEPI has organized clubs and activities for camp children, and it has set up “livelihood centers” for widows and orphans at two camps in northeastern Adamawa state and another in Jos. Program participants learn trades like soap making and sewing and learn how to run a computer center. CCEPI and the Church of the Brethren furnished the centers with training equipment, provided some meals for students, and covered transportation costs for those who had to travel. The program also provides students with equipment and resources to start a business after graduation.

After the first class graduated from the center in Jos, Dali discovered one student had sold the sewing machine she received. The center now asks the students to pay a $10 token fee. Dali explains, “If you give everything free, people will not cherish it much.”

The livelihood centers assist people like Bitrus. Boko Haram militants captured her in 2014 when they raided her village in Borno state. She remained with the terrorists for two years and three months in Sambisa Forest, where the militants also kept the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped during the infamous Chibok raid.

“I was praying and fasting,” Bitrus said of her time in captivity. When the extremist who “married” her died in battle, Bitrus—seven months pregnant at the time—escaped, running for three days until Nigerian troops picked her up. She arrived at the livelihood center in 2016, and CCEPI helped her through the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth. She plans to continue sewing and hopes eventually to return to school.

Aisha Moses, a 45-year-old volunteer at the livelihood center, sees the program’s impact reaching beyond each graduate. “When I ask them what they’re going to do, they say they’re going to help their families and train other people.” At the center, Moses sat on a wooden desk, a cloth tied around her waist and a set of crutches leaning against the wall nearby. CCEPI paid for surgery last July to amputate Moses’ right leg. She said an insect bit her leg as she fled her village in Borno state in 2014, and the injury had gone untreated. Her father and several other family members died due to Boko Haram violence. “One day, we buried more than 400 people.”

Onize Ohikere

Esther Bitrus and her daughter Rebecca (Onize Ohikere)

AMID THE VIOLENCE AND PAIN, Dali attempts to remain a source of kindness and hope for her people. Sitting in her home in Jos, Dali lends a warm greeting and a smile to visitors who occasionally appear through her open door. In her living room, 10 plaques and awards decorate a slab, many of them commending her humanitarian work. During a trip to Geneva last year, she received the United Nation’s Sérgio Vieira de Mello humanitarian award for her efforts to reintegrate former Boko Haram captives. 

Dali visits rescued captives shortly after their release to learn their immediate needs and where their families are located. She works with local village heads to resettle widows and sometimes helps to build homes for them. She also pays the school fees for some of the rescued orphans. CCEPI has helped to reintegrate 250 people since the conflict began.

Reintegration for Bitrus and others is not easy. The process for each individual can take two to six months. And sometimes it fails: Last year, center workers were still visiting one of the rescued girls when she fled back to rejoin Boko Haram. Dali said the girl had become radicalized and still supported the group’s ideology. 

When CCEPI begins the process of reintegrating a former captive, the initial response from families or communities is fear, as villagers worry the survivors could become radicalized and kill them. Dali’s intervention process begins with prayer: “I usually pray to God to give me peace of mind and that God would speak to them before I go.” She also shares her personal story of suffering and loss with the families. 

‘If my organization is not there, who will go?’ —Dali

In 2011, Dali’s own teenage son went missing during an ethno-religious crisis in Jos. She has had to go through her own healing to deal with the trauma of loss. 

“That one usually sticks deep,” she says. “It’s very difficult and the scar is still there, but God is still good.” 

Sometimes, she lets her actions speak for her. In one village where the residents were worried about a formerly captive widow, Dali held a small celebration to hand over the house CCEPI had built for her. The widow cooked, and she and Dali ate together from the same plate. “It showed them she’s [not] harmful.” 

Dali finds fulfillment in these success stories. Regarding the 350 babies who now bear her name, she laughs: “They’re too many.” 

In her culture, people buy gifts for children named after them. But her gift to her namesakes, Dali says, is to love and help their parents.

Onize Ohikere

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.