Zannah Mustapha, a Nigerian lawyer and advocate for the rights of displaced children growing up amid violence in north-eastern Nigeria to get a quality education, is the 2017 winner of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award.
The Nansen Refugee Award, which is bestowed by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), has been won in the past by Eleanor Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti, and the winner receives $150,000 to fund a project complementing their existing work.
In the words of Zannah Mustapha, the 2017 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Winner:
“I am exceedingly happy and motivated to do more … I will scale up my efforts.
Some of the students that started in my school have graduated, and they are now going into university – I can use this money to help them complete the cycle.”
Zannah Mustapha is the founder of two schools which offer free education, meals, uniforms and healthcare to its pupils, and even enrol children born to Boko Haram fighters to learn alongside those orphaned by the Islamist group’s eight-year insurgency. Those orphaned by the conflict on both sides are welcomed into Mustapha’s classrooms as a sign of the reconciliation he hopes to achieve in the region.
His first venture, Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, opened a decade ago and was the only school in Borno state in northeast Nigeria to remain open when Boko Haram in 2009 began their brutal campaign to carve out an Islamic state. Future Prowess has grown from 36 students to 540. Desperate for an education, thousands more children have added their names to its waiting list. In 2016, his second school opened just a few kilometres away from the first. Eighty-eight children, all of whom have fled conflict in the region, walk through its classroom doors each day.
The Islamist militants have killed hundreds of teachers and forced more than 1,000 schools to shut, leaving tens of thousands of children without an education, aid agencies say.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi hailed Mustapha for helping to foster peace and rebuild communities devastated by violence. According to Grandi:
“Education is one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children overcome the horrors of violence and forced displacement.”
Mustapha’s work also includes helping to negotiate the release of more than 100 of the 220-odd girls snatched from their school in Chibok in April 2014 in the biggest publicity coup of Boko Haram’s insurgency that prompted global outrage and the international campaign #bringbackourgirls.
The return of 82 of the girls in May marked the second group release of the Chibok girls by the militants – with both deals brokered by Switzerland and the Red Cross and mediated by Mustapha – after a group of 21 were freed in October last year.
A few others have escaped or been rescued but about 113 of the girls are believed to be still held captive by Boko Haram.
The Islamist group has killed at least 20,000 people and uprooted more than 2.7 million across the Lake Chad region and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, according to aid agencies.
Despite being driven back from much of the territory it held, Boko Haram has ramped up attacks this year, targeting civilians and camps for the displaced with suicide bombings.
More recently, Mustapha donated acres of his own land to 800 displaced families. Building a water irrigation pump and shelter, these families are now able to support themselves and sell their produce at local markets.
The UNHCR Nansen Refugees award was established in 1954 and awarded annually to an individual, group or organization in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced and stateless persons.
The award includes a Commonwealth medal and monetary prize of $100,000 donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to begin a project in consultation with UNHCR, to complement the laureate’s existing work.