WASHINGTON — One year ago, a girl named Saa jumped from a truck in Nigeria, not knowing if she would survive the landing.
Saa was one of the hundreds of girls abducted last April from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Speaking at a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Saa — who uses a pseudonym to protect her Christian family in Nigeria — explained that “when the terrorists attacked my school and took all of us in a truck, when we were going in the forest I decided to jump out of the truck.”
She knew she might die, she said. But she also knew that if she did, her parents would at least be able to give her a proper burial. If she simply disappeared with the Islamic State-affiliated militants, even that cold comfort would be taken away.
Thankfully, Saa survived, as did a friend who jumped with her. They were rescued the next day.
This week, Saa and Patience, another survivor, were in Washington as part of an effort by a group of Democratic lawmakers to ensure that public awareness of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign doesn’t falter.
Saa told reporters Wednesday that her experience reminded her of the essence of America.
“When I came to America, I came to Washington, D.C., and [heard] a story that American people say ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’” she said. When she heard this, she remembered why she decided to take her leap of faith.
“I’d rather die or live. And here [I am now] free… I’m now here to continue with my studies,” she said. “But my colleagues are still in the hands of the terrorists.”
A number of Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Frederica Wilson (Fla.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Karen Bass (Calif.) and Lois Frankel (Fla.), are using the stories of women and girls who have encountered Boko Haram to push policies that will hold the militants accountable for last year’s abductions. The lawmakers hope these policies can ensure the missing girls are returned to their families.
Wilson said she has worked to concentrate the #BringBackOurGirls effort in the U.S. by tweeting about the campaign daily — and making sure the world is tweeting as well — since she traveled to Nigeria last June and met the people who started the campaign. They asked her to bring it back to the U.S. and “rev it up.”
“That is what we have been doing,” she told The Huffington Post. “Tweeting, tweeting.”
That isn’t all Wilson is doing, however. She’s also pushing the Nigeria/Boko Haram Relief Act, a piece of legislation that includes a formal condemnation of Boko Haram by the House of Representatives and urges the Nigerian government to strengthen its security forces and provide compensation to the victims of militant attacks.
Wilson hopes Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari will find the bill attractive.
“Hopefully he’ll have the political will to bring together all of the neighboring armies to combat Boko Haram,” she said.
Buhari distanced himself from incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s handling of Boko Haram this week in an op-ed for The New York Times, where he condemned the Jonathan administration for its delayed response to the kidnapping.
Approximately 800,000 children have been displaced due to Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, according to a recent report from UNICEF. More than 300 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 196 teachers and 314 schoolchildren were killed in 2014.
“They’re just abducting young girls, and what [was] their sin? They wanted an education,” Maloney said Wednesday. “We’ve got to stop this. When you educate a girl, you educate a family, you educate their children, you educate their tribe, you educate a nation. It’s very important.”
The congresswoman is also asking the World Court to charge Boko Haram with war crimes and crimes against humanity — mainly for the group’s use of rape as a weapon.
According to UNICEF, Boko Haram is forcing Nigerian girls and young women into marriages and involuntary labor, and committing acts of sexual violence against them.
“That is what they are doing to these girls,” said Maloney. “It is not marriage. It is forced rape. And we have to draw a line in the sand.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has also committed to Maloney’s effort.
“It is a crime against humanity, and I do hope we can get this to the International Criminal Court, because this is something that has got to stop,” Lee said Wednesday. “If it can happen in Nigeria, it can happen anywhere in the world.”
Bass, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, said at the press conference that she will not rest until all the missing girls are found and returned to their families.
“Next year, on the second anniversary, we are going to stand here and celebrate the return of all of the girls,” she said.
Emmanuel Ogebe, an international lawyer working with the Education Must Continue Initiative, an organization committed to getting Nigeria’s displaced children back in school, described the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping as the second-longest mass abduction by terrorists in “current world history.”
“In one week’s time, it will become the longest mass abduction by terrorists,” said Ogebe.
About 15 girls who escaped the initial abduction are now in the U.S., according to Wilson — and all of them have expressed a wish to finish their schooling.
The Education Must Continue Initiative is attempting to make that dream a reality. Currently, the organization is supporting at least 10 Chibok girls attending school in the U.S. The group also operates schools in camps for internally displaced persons in northeastern Nigeria, and is relocating students from that region to other parts of Nigeria where they can safely finish their education.
The organization is also partnering with the World Ebony Network, a Virginia-based nonprofit, to help the girls adjust to life in the U.S., Ogebe said.
Saa “survived the terrorists,” he said Wednesday. “Now let us help her survive America.”
Saa, whom Ogebe has called the “Malala of Africa” — a reference to 17-year-old Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who has advocated on behalf of the missing Nigerian girls — said she’s happy to be in the U.S. continuing her education. She called for international intervention for her 219 peers still in the hands of Boko Haram.
“I pray and hope that we will do our best to see that the girls are back to school. And we really want them now,” she said. “Not tomorrow. Not [the] day after tomorrow. Not next year — but we want them now to come back to school.”