Nova Scotia

Former Halifax professor helps girls who've escaped Boko Haram

A former Halifax professor teaching in Nigeria is talking about how her university is helping girls who have escaped Islamist Boko Haram militants.

American University of Nigeria providing shelter, protection and education to about a dozen girls

A woman attends a demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday Sept. 11, 2014, calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok. More than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a school in Chibok in Nigeria's north-eastern state of Borno on April 14. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the act. (The Associated Press)

A former Halifax professor teaching in Nigeria is helping girls who have escaped  Islamist Boko Haram militants.

The situation involving Boko Haram catapulted into the international spotlight earlier this year when more than 200 girls were kidnapped and enslaved.

Boko Haram, which wants to form its own Islamic state, carried out the kidnapping at the girls school during the night of April 14 or 15.

It's estimated 276 students were abducted, but some have escaped — most recently, four girls who turned up a week ago in Nigeria after walking for three weeks following their escape from captivity in neighbouring Cameroon.

About 200 are believed to be kept as sex slaves.

Jessica Boyd is a former university professor from Halifax. She now chairs the Department of Natural and Environmental Sciences at the American University of Nigeria, in Yola, Nigeria.

Her university — a large gated compound with razor wire along the property and a security staff of 600 — is providing shelter, protection and education to about a dozen girls between the ages of 17 and 19 years old who have escaped.

"In the last month, things have begun to turn. Up until then, it seemed like the Boko Haram could just do whatever they wanted. But in the last month, the army has finally been able to fight back but they haven't solved the problem yet, they haven't won," said Boyd in an interview with CBC's Information Morning.

'They have incredible dreams'

She said the girls are doing well at the university, taking classes in reading, writing, math and biology.  

Boyd said some of the girls who made it to the university escaped from a pickup truck and wandered the bush before making it back home.

A private foundation, organized by the university, helps to pay for the girls's tuition and other items.

"They didn't have much with them when they came, so part of the scholarship is to clothe, [buy] toiletries, and a lab coat, and tuition, the room and board — all that. It's been a really wonderful experience for them and they are really excited about it," said Boyd.

She said, despite the threats, she feels relatively safe.

"I feel safe on the compound and in the university. It's hard for me to process this, I've never been in a situation like this before. I don't know what the risk is. But the risk is real, everybody is aware that the risk in real that the Boko Haram could come any time," said Boyd.

She said even with all the girls have been through, they still have dreams and aspirations.

"They have incredible dreams, a lot of them want to be doctors — that's why they come to our class. A lot of them want to be lawyers. One girl said she wants to be president, I said 'president of Nigeria? Or president of a university?' And she said 'Yes!'" said Boyd.

"These are really wonderful girls, they know they've been given a wonderful chance and they're not going to waste it. Really, really proud to be part of it."