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Kids in toxic stress Terrorism has torn apart the protection children need to grow, steeping them in stress too poisonous for their future

All across the north east of Nigeria, millions of children have been displaced, orphaned or maimed by violence in the wake of Boko Haram insurgency across the region.

They live in turmoil: haunted by night, desperate by day. Without help, their futures are bleak, and their country could pay the price. They are stressed. And it is toxic.

The damage

inside a safe space school for children in maiduguri

It was night, around 11pm, when the attack began. It was sudden. The armed men took the villagers unawares. The gunshots seemed to be coming from everywhere.

A new mother strapped her baby to her back. She didn’t want anything else. Except to flee for her life, to save her baby. Other villagers were fleeing too.

The bullet struck her without warning. She didn’t hear the thump of metal striking flesh, didn’t notice when she fell, dead.

Her baby was still strapped to her back, wailing in terror and pain, unaware what happened. Her baby was Khadijah Yusuf. She was seven days old.

[Names and some locations of children in this story are changed to protect their identity].

Another woman, also fleeing, saw Khadijah wailing, strapped to her dead mother. She picked the child and began a long, arduous race out of their village.

Khadijah baby and her new foster mother wound up in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.

Counsellors providing child protection services for thousands of people displaced and currently in Maiduguri came across her, says Kingdom Alexander, a child protection expert with Plan International Nigeria in the city.

Khadijah was formally listed in a fostering programme as the daughter of the woman who found her. “Now the child is close to one year and surviving,” says Alexander.

From 2009 till date, the uprising in Nigeria’s north east has escalated from insurgency to outright terrorism.

Tens of thousands have been killed—in Boko Haram attacks, caught up in the midst of counterattacks by the Nigerian military.

But the brunt of suffering has been on children. The dead are counted, the living are shells of themselves.

“This is a crisis of child protection,” says Geoffrey Ijumba, chief of the United Nations Children’s Fund field office in Borno, which oversees neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe. Together, the three states are the worst-affected by Boko Haram’s activities.

“The insurgency has disrupted the protective environment of children. The protection and safety children feel at home, in school, living in normal community—the insurgency has flipped that over,” he says.
Geoffrey Ijumba in Maiduguri
“You have homes destroyed, parents who are main protectors of children killed, maimed or otherwise incapacitated. You have women who are caretakers killed, maimed, displaced. You have children themselves killed, abducted, recruited to join combatants.”

Grave violations

This May, the United Nations secretary-general on children and armed conflicts reported to the Security Council “grave violations” against children in conflicts from Yemen and Syria to Chad and Nigeria.

All six violations are recorded in Nigeria. In 2017, Boko Haram recruited more than 1,051 children; the civilian Joint Task Force helping to fight Boko Haram recruited 41.

This same year, nearly 2,000 children were “deprived of liberty” because they or their parents were alleged to have been associated with Boko Haram. Last year, the military released 1,190. In July, it released another 183.

The United Nations verified a total of 881 children killed or maimed—620 by Boko Haram and 261 by the Nigerian security forces.

Some 441 of the children were killed in suicide attacks by Boko Haram using children to carry improvised explosive devices.

Military aerial bombardments killed 235; another 26 were specifically targeted on suspicion of carrying improvised explosive devices.

“The insurgency has undermined the protective environment necessary for children to grow and develop,” says Ijumba.

Children, aged 1 to 15 gather in safe spaces every week in maiduguri under supervision of case workers

For every child killed, hundreds more are thrust into mental anguish. With more than 1,400 schools destroyed, the playgrounds that children once knew and frolicked in are gone. So too, their homes and parents.

Mental health experts have raised concerns about what instability and disrupted childhoods could mean for children’s future—and the country itself.

It is called toxic stress. One child-protection specialist explains the concept as it affects every and any one.

Leave home in the morning. Deal with traffic. Jostle your way through to work. Labour all day. Suffer incompetent subordinates. Deal with overbearing bosses. Go through the entire gamut on your way out of work. When you get home, you have loved ones to welcome you, help you take a load off, relieve the day’s pressure. Then get ready for another day.

For the children caught up in the violence of Boko Haram, their families are taken away from them, loved ones driven in disarray, they are unaccompanied, alone, not sure where they are sleeping, in new environments where nothing is familiar, no sense of where they will sleep, what they will eat, what the night holds, what the next day holds.

But live and cope, they must. How they do that is crucial. And it all comes down to the science behind stress management.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child have offered explanations of how stress can become toxic.

When threatened, your body prepares you to respond: your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure spikes in that flee-or-flight response moment. So do levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

The stress response system is vital to dealing with adversity. When a child’s stress response system is activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, the psychological effects—the heart rate surge, blood pressure spike—are buffered and brought back down to baseline. It could be anything from the presence of a supportive adult saying, "It is going to be okay, I got you, to just being there".

The result: stress response system is healthy. It could go another way though. When that stress response is extreme and long-lasting and buffering relationships are unavailable, the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.

“When toxic stress response occurs continually, or is triggered by multiple sources, it can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime,” the researchers say.

“The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.”

Help, no help!

Development and welfare workers have a nice label for them: “orphans and vulnerable children”—or OVCs.

Children orphaned in Maiduguri gather for story time at a child-friendly space

Some 56,000 of them are in Borno alone, one of three most affected states, according to the Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative, set up to coordinate humanitarian response to the crisis across the region.

Abdullahi Asimi worked until 2013 on a project to identify OVCs, get them into school and get school authorities to waive some fees.

“Children were traumatized. Some are able to know faintly who their parents were before they died. Some did not see their fathers or mothers before death,” the public school administrator says in Yola.

He recalls visiting Hamawa Tongo Primary School in Yola town to verify whether children on his roll were really orphans.

“I called a girl, I asked ‘what’s your name?’. The name is on the list. I asked, ‘where is your mother?’. The next thing she did was to start crying. I couldn’t hold my tears. I too started crying.”

Across the region, their numbers increase daily. At a rehabilitation centre in Bulunkutu, Maiduguri is a boy named “No Name”.

When Boko Haram attacked his village, they killed his parents in plain sight. He was so traumatized, he couldn’t tell his own name.

He was treated at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital and then named Mohammed.

Ibrahim Marama counts among orphans in Adamawa state, next door to Borno. He was four when he watched his parents slaughtered by armed men who attacked his village by night.

His childhood disappeared. He isolated himself, he didn’t associate with children, he didn’t play, he didn’t eat, he didn’t talk, says a social worker who managed him in Yola, Adamawa state capital.

He was aggressive to everyone around him, and especially to children his age.

“When they try to play with him, he becomes aggressive, to the extent he would tell them, “killing somebody is not a difficult thing,” recalls Amina Muhammad, of Adamawa’s ministry of health.

Amina Muhammad works at Adamawa ministry of health

“If a child of four will know what killing a person is, you can imagine what kind of behaviour that child will grow with, the mindset he will have. You can also imagine by the time the child reaches teenage or adolescence, what kind of child he will be.”

When Boko Haram widened its stranglehold from Borno to Adamawa, two camps in Yola and another in Mubi were set up to absorb residents displaced from rural communities and streaming into cities.

Muhammad helped train social workers and coordinate psychosocial services on the camps.

Food, water and shelter are basic, and nongovernment organisations (NGOs) scramble to provide them. Some 37 international NGOs, 37 national NGOs, nine UN agencies, eight government partners and three Red Cross movement are involved in humanitarian response across Adamawa, Yobe and Damaturu.

More than half of all protection services in the humanitarian response are in Maiduguri, with only minimal presence in Damaturu and Yobe, according to data from the UN.

Social workers are few, psychologists are fewer. In the course of following this story, only two organisations were found to be currently offering psychosocial services. Others had either long since stopped for lack of funding, or planned to initiate one in future.

Children need psychosocial help, but it is inadequate. And they are no soft worries either.

“In crisis, what will be your experience—upset, distress, calamity, loss of sleep thinking where my daily bread is going to come from,” says Alexander, of Plan International Nigeria.

Kingdom Alexander

“It is the loss of those basic needs that cause the issue to happen. A child, when you provide those needs, some of the distress he has been going through reduces.

“But as such we should not forget one of the basic needs a child has, which cannot be seen physically—that is the psychosocial support.”

The Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative is still drawing up framework to guide the provision of psychosocial services across the affected states of the north east.

Only a handful of organisations like Plan, United Nations Populations Fund and UNICEF have put up some semblance of psychosocial support. Plan and UNICEF's Yellow Ribbon project implemented by Neem Foundation were reached for this story. The available model uses “friendly spaces” targeting children who have been through violence of terror and girls who have survived rape.

The idea is to give them neutral spaces where they can be free of past, present and future threats. But the spaces and specialists to run them are scarce.

Five psychiatric hospitals run in Nigeria, and experts worry that 146 psychiatrists for a country the size of Nigeria is dismal.

“The clinical psychiatrists to replace them are working in banks,” says clinical psychologist Terna Abege of Neem Foundation.

The foundation runs Lafiya Sarari—Hausa for “safe spaces”—a project for psychosocial support by UNICEF.

Its four psychologists teach case workers and counsellors the basics of case management using curriculum drawn up by its psychologists.

“In 2016, we couldn’t have counted up to five psychologists in the whole of Maiduguri,” says Peter Ebeh, clinical psychologist who works with in the safe spaces.
Peter Ebeh
“Then we had four clinical psychologists. The work was so much for us. We could do very little, given over 1.2 million people displaced, and 600,000 of them children.”

“What we do is actually very good but too little compared to people in need. Even in the field, you see we can’t attend to all. Sometimes we are overstretched to ensure these services are rendered to people,” says Ebeh.

Figures show a dearth in experts to deal with the minds of children

The available psychologists are trying to fill the gap by training social workers to "case manage" children, a desperate bid to fill the huge void in psychosocial care for millions.

Borno has the largest concentration of protection in humanitarian response. For every 30 or so, neighbouring Adamawa has one, according to the data sampled from the UN humanitarian response.

a safe space in maiduguri run by case workers overseen by plan international

Fatima Bukar was barely 10 when she was taken to Sambisa, the stronghold from Boko Haram unleashed terror until the military flushed the group out.

Sambisa was also the site where hundreds of girls were forced into marriages, sexually and physically abused for months until eventual death, release or rescue.

Upon liberation, Bukar inched her way from Sambisa to Madagali, then onto Mubi—and finally reached Rumde Baru in Yola North of Adamawa.

There she was discovered pregnant, her baby bump unobtrusively hidden beneath her long burka. She would later be delivered of twin girls, and watch one fight for life with severe infection.

She was enrolled in a “child friendly” space where women trained in bits of social work trained children in basic life skills.

The child-friendly space in Rumde Baru is gone

In these class sheds, girls who settled in Rumde Baru displaced from far-flung communities of Adamawa learned life skills

It has been three years since children gathered here for extracurricular activities that make up the psychosocial help they get in Adamawa

With loss of funding, the psychosocial services that went on in this child-friendly space are gone

The shelter, which opened a couple of times a week, was the only form of psychosocial support Bukar got. It was run by Hope and Rural Aid Foundation, a small nongovernment group that depends on fund appeals to international agencies like Food and Agriculture Organisation to provide aids and recovery items to displaced people returning home. When funding was cut, the project ended.

What’s left of the site in Rumde Baru are the sheds where girls once gathered, now overtaken by roaming goats, grazing sheep, pecking chickens.

No one knows Bukar’s new whereabouts. Nothing about her. She’s fallen through the cracks of psychosocial support.

She isn’t alone, and the consequences could be bleak.

One patient Abege worked with is a teenager who claimed to have killed more than 2,000 people who now “follow her in her dreams,” he says.

“We are talking children associated with armed forces and armed groups. They only know Bama and Maiduguri as Nigeria. No other faith is known to them. Almajiris drawing guns on walls and naming all. Communities reject them and they will bank together to take care of themselves. They only know guns and that with it they can do anything.”

Children cope in different ways.

“The way a 14-year-old boy might cope is by bullying his peers and those younger than him,” says Evelyn Kaderi, officer for child protection and gender-based violence at Plan International Nigeria, based in Maiduguri.

Evelyn Kaderi in Maiduguri

“That’s his way of showing he's not weak. It comes with a lot of self blame. He could say, maybe I looked weak; that’s why they picked on me and took me to the bush. The community can interpret it as just being a bad boy.

“Another 14-year-old going through the same might be withdrawn, so if the same thing happens, he won’t be picked on.”

Research indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.

Children who already have lost that need to make up, and experts worry about their future.

“It could be quite bleak, that’s why we need to address it at different levels,” says Kaderi.

It is beyond putting children straight into psychiatric care, laden with psychotropic medication. The psychosocial support to help children “depressurize” might even be more critical.

“A child that’s already thinking he can live like a bully in order to protect himself, that’s not even a healthy way for a child to grow,” says Kaderi.

“The impact is great. Our greatest fear is for these children, especially those associated with armed conflicts. If we don’t address their emotional needs, they are the next generation that will probably be the next set of Boko Haram.”

The price of help, or not!

Hauwa Dikwa was 10 when she was abducted by Boko Haram terrorists. Taken away from home, cut off from family, she spent three years living in the terrorists’ stronghold of Sambisa forest. She would later return after the forest was overrun by military forces.

It was a different Dikwa who returned to her family. She was aggressive to everybody—her siblings, parents, neigbhours, says psychologist Peter Ebeh, who worked with the girl.

“She picked fights for no just cause, she wanted to hurt children. She spoke very rudely. She could tell a child, ‘I will kill you with my bare hands’.”

Her case workers assessed her, drew up a treatment plan. They put her in a child-friendly space to enable her express herself.

still children. many girls in need of psychosocial support have gone through forced marriage and molestation

The hostility continued toward her case workers. Soon she began to mellow, to speak, to tell her story.

Her case workers put her to play—with just about anything she could think from a selection of toys.

She selected a water gun and started firing away. “What are you doing?” her counsellor asked.

“That’s what they were doing in the forest. That’s what the Boko Haram were doing,” she said. “They were always shooting. Sometimes they teach us to shoot.”

The counsellor asked Dikwa to draw. She drew daggers and spears. On another day, she drew a human head. “I have seen so many skulls, so many heads of people being killed,” she said.

The space where Dikwa played every week had no skulls, but dolls and plastic bricks.

They are the building blocks of child-friendly spaces that are springing up between Borno and Adamawa as experts, researchers and policymakers and humanitarian workers scramble to offer bits of psychosocial support.

Child-friendly spaces are springing as the start of psychosocial support for children in the north east

Humans respond to stress on the different levels: positive, tolerable and toxic.

In the absence of responsive relationships with adult caregivers, a child stress response systems go on high alert—and stay there

When the toxic stress response occurs continually, or is triggered by multiple sources, it can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime, according to Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child.

Levels of stress response

The toll accumulating over time increases the chances of developmental delays, learning disabilities, and childhood behavior problems.

This happens by impairing the development of neural connections, especially in the areas of the brain dedicated to higher-order skills.

The likelihood of diabetes, heart disease, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and other major health problems in adulthood also increase.

The psychological impact of the experiences children across the north east of Nigeria have undergone are yet to show up.

Millions are out of school, hundreds of thousands without parent. They scrape their living in camps for displaced people or in communities benevolent to hosting them. They live on humanitarian aids and handouts.

"For most of them, sleeping was a problem. This is one of those signs that psychologically, the children are not well,” says Ijumba, chief of UNICEF’s field office in Borno.

For many children, the things taken for granted--laughter, a shared joke--are difficult or lost

Providing socialization for children when the environment is safe provides emotional stability, he explains.

“But with the fighting, children are witnessing bloodshed, being socially violated. the socialization process is becoming violent and children are active participants in violence. Some of these children have been taught to kill and some have killed,” he says.

“Every day if you hear of a suicide bomber in Maiduguri, most likely that suicide bomber is a child. They have been victimized and brainwashed to regard violence as normal. Violence should never be normal for children. Psychosocial programmes are designed to interrupt the process that normalizes violence.”

Psychologist Ebeh says the continued pressure of violent experiences increases the likelihood of children not being able to function very well in society.

“The child lives with fear, memories that are terrible. That will affect the child’s cognition and the way he relates to society, the world, even his peers. The feelings could make the child a dangerous person to himself and to society.

“It will also leave the child with some bad tendencies. He might be going, ‘I must take this thin to somebody one day. A child whose parents are slaughtered in his presence, their livelihood destroyed, if he's not take care of, he will be living with that mission. Could be: the reason why I am alive is to ensure that what has happened to use in the past, I get revenge some day in the future.

"If that child is not properly taken care of, and we have plenty of them in thousands, you just know we won’t have a healthy society in future.”

Many girls recall violent abuse and live in a present of uncertainty. their future is also uncertain

Two patients illustrate what children are having to cope with.

For months in Boko Haram captivity, Aisha Pindar was repeatedly raped. When soldiers liberated her, counsellors moved in to offer any assistance to the newly liberated community. She was already pregnant.

“The level at which we found her, she was almost committing suicide,” says child-protection expert Kingdom Alexander.

“She had experienced what made her feel, ‘I am not important, I am no longer useful as a human being. What’s the end of me? It is to kill myself’,” Alexander recalls from psychotherapy sessions with Pindar.

"If that child is not properly taken care of, and we have plenty of them in thousands, you just know we won’t have a healthy society in future.”

Kuluwa Danlami, same age as Pindar, also came out of Boko Haram captivity pregnant. She had been married to one of the group’s member whom she said took care of her.

“She was asking for the closest way to go and meet her husband in the bush,” Alexander recalls. She complained her new community was making plans to kill her and her baby by night.

“If the community is not supportive in encouraging them to stay, helping to reduce their psychological distress, they are adding more to what these people have come through.”

Dikwa is back in school, a special school called Lafiya Sarari (Hausa for safe spaces). The school provides creative education, creative engagement, mental engagement, and counselling every week depending on risk level.

Counsellors also watch how the children react with one another and categorise Dikwa as “doing very well”.

“She can tell you her story without even crying. She is strong and better, friendly, open.”

Dikwa has also become an instrument to reach other children who have gone through such things, according to her cousellors.

In one session, she said, “Today I can see a future for myself, I can think of myself.”

When she first arrived and was asked what she wanted to be, she said, “’Nothing’,” her counsellor says. “Today she wants to be a doctor.

Dikwa said, “I see children suffering, I want to help them.”

Ibrahim James

Mending the mind

Two days every week, Ibrahim James tries to forget seeing his father killed. He recalls being driven from his home. He calls his displacement the “hijra’ or flight.

For days, he slept in open farms, migrated hundreds of kilometers from his home. He left school, ate little food provided by church aid.

In 2015, he and what was left of his family settled in Warambugge in Michika local government area of Adamawa.

And then the nightmares began. Flashbacks of what was left of his life. “The glasses were broken. We went to my uncle’s house. They brought out knives, they burnt the house to the tiles. I remember the dead bodies. I saw the dead bodies in the well,” he recalls disjointedly.

Minutes later, he's off to a football match, in a team of seven boys in red two-sies, pitted against another team in blue. Their pitch is a school field, where once Boko Haram flushed pupils out of classes.

Busy bodies, cool minds for the reds and blues in Warrambuge, Adamawa. Team football is part of play to keep children in state of depressurisation, gradually beginning forgetfulness to upsets that continually plague them

For them, playing football this day every week is their vehicle to recovery. It is the child-friendly space they have.

On the corridor of the classroom block, Patience threads yarn through a knitting pin and continues where she left off the previous week. The teenager still remembers her father’s slaughter but the ball of yarn is a present distraction. So is the ludo game for other children beside her. Younger boys build tractors out of Lego-style bricks.

They meet one or two protection concerns—out of school, malnourished, orphaned. They also meet vulnerability criteria to help local nongovernment organisations start case management.

Under a tree, younger children share toys, older girls put crayon to paper. The sketches are things remembered, things left behind. Their industry is to forget.

“The child-friendly space is to give a sense and semblance of normalcy to these children,” says Winner Ben-Abba, who works against gender-based violence for Plan International Nigeria in Adamawa. He also coordinates a project by the German Federal Foreign Office to provide support for families affected by insurgency across Nigeria, Niger Republic and Cameroon.

The purpose is to reduce effect of insurgency and exposure to violence, he explains.

And that’s where the toys come in, says psychologist Peter Ebeh, who coordinates child-friendly spaces in Maiduguri.

“The experiences they have gone through, the crisis, Boko Haram activities have caused a lot of damage to their inner person, their cognition. It has upset their mind and altered their normal way of thinking,” says Ebeh.

“They think in terms of what they have seen and gone through. It is not a pleasant thing. It has affected their connection.

“As they engage in this play, their mind is taken away from the things that upset them over the years. As they do it often, gradually their mind is taken away from this place and they begin to try to build a new cognition, new sense and patterns of thinking. It takes their mind, attention and interest from their past experiences and exposure to this violence.”

Story time in Shuwari, a camp for displaced people near Maiduguri's abandoned railway. A boy regales his audience with tales of the "Kura" (or hyena). Folk tales of tortoise, hyena and the lion take the place of soul-wounding stories

Shuwari is home to Maiduguri’s railway terminal. Abandoned train carriages still sit on abandoned rails going nowhere. It is also a location critical to the start of Boko Haram in Maiduguri. These days it hosts a camp for displaced people.

Shuwari doesn’t have a child-friendly space. The space comes to them once every week. Its location is under a tree. Boys and girls become story tellers in the waning evening sun.

The teller stands before an audience. They tell tales of hyenas, lions and monkeys to gales of laughter.

"Muna da dancewa", the children at Shuwari, Maiduguri, chant. Hausa for "We are dancing". The play is an activity they normally would not get

Metres away, children not interested in stories force their imagination on Lego bricks or pencil and paper. They switch between the art class and the dance class. They have only an hour of play before the mobile child-friendly space leaves for the week.

“It helps them forget all the trauma, the crisis they have seen,” says Charity Luka, a community engagement officer for the Gender, Equality Peace and Development Centre. Her job is to engage the displaced in Shuwari to join the space.

“Majority of the children here are settled here. They have run away from their own communities, local government areas and settled here,” Luka says.

“Some have lost parents, so the trauma is still there. It helps them relieve the images the crisis has created in them.”

A fixed child-friendly space in Kaleri. Children go at netball and soccer

Kaleri is around 10 minutes’ drive from Shuwari. The child-friendly space doesn’t come and go. It is fixed—an open pitch where boys play netball or football, an enclosure where girls draw and knit.

The space helps refresh the minds of the children,” says Meshach Adamu, a case worker working with the children for a Plan project. “Many are traumatized.”

Without the spaces, psychosocial support for children affected by Boko Haram would be nonexistent.

“It is better imagined than stated, because we are dealing with, for lack of any other way to express it, it is actually PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] for some of those that were actually in the eye of the insurgency,” says Ben-Abba.

‘Some have been related in one way or another with armed opposition groups. If those services were not there, basically we are dealing with potential cases of child soldiers.

“People who have witnessed all manner of violence and come back to the community—without proper reintegration process or psychosocial support services, counselling and all that—and they are just embedded back into society. Of course they grow up becoming the layabouts, the people that cause much trouble in society.”

Nigeria’s answer is the Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative, looking to set up framework for psychosocial services for residents affected by insurgency in the north east.

The Initiative encourages host communities to “adopt” orphaned children—a sort of “fostering” to enable children live in stable relationships with adults. It pays N2,000 for each child “adopted” to provide support for both the child and family.

Some 56,000 orphans are documented to reside in Borno alone. The Victims Support Foundation provides for a total 2,000 of them. Another 2,000 are covered by the Child Care Trust Fund of Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

The move looks to the science behind toxic stress. Adult relationships help buffer the physiological effects of stress response in children.

Independent psychosocial programmes across the north east also place vulnerable children with families where there is an adult, and then trains adults to nurture children.

“Simply sleeping alongside the children, they help us reduce the stress these children have gone through,” says Kingdom Alexander, child protection expert at Plan.

“Talking to them in a sweet, calm way, counselling that ‘all is not lost, you can still be the person you want to be, we are still here for you as your parents, we can still provide for you’. This can happen while we are not around.”

Foster parents come before even the case worker and the psychologist or psychiatrist. And a framework for psychosocial support must factor in layers of causes and reactions for children trapped in conflict.

“It has to be subjective,” says Geoffrey Ijumba, chief of UNICEF’s field office for Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

“There is no universal indicator of happiness. This is the north. There is a way children in the north are socialized. There are certain traditions that are to be observed. We are not in a position to impose anything from the outside. At least we can agree on the basics and they are influenced by other factors.”

The basics throw up questions.

“Safety in the home. When children are at home, how do we treat them? Safety in the community. Every time a child sets foot outside of the home, are they able to go out and come back home safely? Playing in child-friendly spaces or playgrounds, are children able to socialize with other children? How does it take place?”

“Some of the children have been victimized. They are going to come back, and the community has to accept them as victims of insurgency, even in circumstances where they committed crime. The thing is they are children. The policy has to address some of these sensitive issues so that the healing process can be complete. Otherwise if this is not addressed, whatever we do, it will not succeed unless the safety environment, the protective environment is restored.”

Amina Muhammad helped train support workers and coordinated the first three camps to shelter displaced people in Adamawa.

“Yes, people need food, water, shelter, but somebody who is traumatized will also need to be supported psychosocially. If I am traumatized, will I be comfortable enough to even eat the food provided or use the shelter given to me? Of course not. Because I am traumatized and possibly not even in touch with my environment,” she says.

Play time for children at Nursing Village, a camp for displaced people in Maiduguri

“If psychosocial support is to be continually provided, it shouldn’t be restricted to within camps and host communities. These services should be extended to our schools. These children, some of them are back to school. What happens when they begin to relate with other children? At the end of the day, you find some of them have developed a different behaviour as a result of the bad experience they had had. Psychosocial support should be part of school curriculum to ensure the children we are bringing up after the crisis are normal children.”

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Judd-Leonard Okafor
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Report made possible with funding from Early Childhood Development Fellowship of the International Centre for Journalists

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