Their long road to freedom

When the school bell rings at the Bulumkutu Rehabilitation Transit Centre in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria, five adolescent boys file into class with other children.

The boys are new arrivals at the Centre run by the Borno State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, with support from UNICEF. They seem like any other group of adolescents, bright-eyed and eager to learn.

However, their background is anything but typical, as the boys have recently been released from the Nigerian military’s administrative custody after their alleged association with armed groups.

Supported by the European Union and other donor partners, the school is one of the temporary care programs initiated by UNICEF at the Centre to rehabilitate and empower boys and girls before their reintegration back into their original communities.

“The Centre provides interim but comprehensive rehabilitation care lasting 12 weeks,” said Kingdom Alexander, UNICEF Child Protection Officer in Maiduguri. “This includes documentation, profiling, psychosocial services, family tracing, case planning and management support for each child or woman.’’

A teacher and her students

Children, women, and adolescents at the Centre are provided with sanitation and hygiene kits and given access to early childhood development activities and formal education, with the support of the Borno State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB).

UNICEF and the Borno State Government also work to rehabilitate the adolescents by providing socio-economic reintegration initiatives under the EU Support for Reconciliation and Reintegration of Former Armed Non-State Combatants and Associates programme that includes vocational training in shoemaking, poultry farming, tailoring and auto repair, amongst other skills.

Ali Usman – not his real name – from Kafa, Damboa Local Government Area, spent three years in military detention for his alleged involvement with armed groups.

With UNICEF’s intervention, the 20-year-old was released after he was determined by the military to be low risk. “I feel a huge relief and excitement to be back in school after a long while. Now I am ready to learn again,’’ said Usman.

Since 2009, nearly 15 million people in Nigeria’s north-east have been affected by armed conflict, characterized by indiscriminate killings and attacks on villages, schools and communities. The violence has caused massive displacement and the frequent abduction of women and children, with children suffering the most significant impact of the conflict.

At the UNICEF-supported Centre in Maiduguri, school lessons start at 8 a.m., and by noon, classes are over. The boys usually enjoy a game of basketball right after school.

A group of young people


A group of young people playing basketball


A group of young people interacting

Each day, UNICEF partner, Goalprime uses a specially designed guidance and activity tool kit to help the adolescents plan out their day.

As part of this, the boys work on the task for the day and present it to a larger group. The lesson helps teach life skills and competencies like identity and self-esteem, communication and expression, empathy, and respect. It also can help them learn to trust people who are trying to help them.

“Generally, the activities teach us a lot of important things that will help us when we return to our communities. I previously gave false information during case management sessions with my caseworker, and they came back without finding my family. This is because I was scared my family would go through the same thing I went through,’’ said one of the boys.

Now the boys say they have no doubt that the questions during their case management sessions are indeed meant to help them reunite with their parents.

At the end of their 12-week stay at the Centre, Aisha Ma’aji, a social worker from the Ministry of Women Affairs, debriefs the adolescents before they leave to reunite with their families. She prepares them for different reception scenarios they could encounter from community members and helps them think about how they will react. To successfully reintegrate with their communities, they must ensure they keep away from bad company.

For the boys, it’s a time of excitement and nervousness.

“A day before we left the Centre, we all could not sleep. We stayed up through the night,” said Usman.

A teacher and her students


A group of young people entering a bus


The boys have mixed emotions on their departure day, but as they step into the bus to be taken to their communities, they say they are happy at the prospect of seeing their families again. At the same time, they wonder what awaits them when they get there.

I do not know how to start making new friends. I don’t even know the kind of persons I will meet when I get home,” said one of the boys.

A bus

Another adolescent is sad to leave his new friends behind. “We have made new friends in the Centre, and we might not see them again.”

With the vocational skills they have acquired at the Centre, the boys are now producing facemasks to protect others from the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, with the support of Goalprime, they have sent masks to more than 7,000 boys and girls and are happy they are reaching as many children as possible.

“Yesterday, I met two school students from Mashamari Primary School, one boy and one girl wearing these masks I knew I produced. It made me so proud of my work,” said one of the boys.

“Now that our work is doing well out there, we want more support and tools to produce other products, like shoes for children without shoes,” added Usman.

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