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.”