The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR recently honoured Zannah Mustapha with the 2017 Nansen Refugee Award at a ceremony in Geneva for founding a school in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.
The school stayed open throughout the conflict with Boko Haram, which has seen some 20,000 killed across the Lake Chad region, and millions more displaced.
The school provides a free education, as well as free meals, uniforms and health care, to children affected and displaced by violence. 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.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, presented the Nansen medal to Mr Mustapha and paid tribute to him saying, “Tonight we recognise and celebrate the achievements of Zannah Mustapha, a man of courage and peace.
“He had the courage to build a school and the courage to offer education to children affected by violence. I cannot think of any better choice for this year’s Award.’’
UNHCR said in the decade since its inception, Mustapha’s school has swelled from 36 students to 540 and thousands more children have added their names to its waiting list. In 2016, Mustapha opened a second school just a few kilometres away from the first.
UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie also provided a video message of congratulation for Mr. Mustapha: “The courage it takes to defend children’s rights to education in the face of Boko Haram is extraordinary”, she said.
“Mr Mustapha, you are an inspiration. I hope this award encourages you and others to continue this vital work.” Mustapha thanked all of the teachers and widows he has worked with and praised the students at his schools, “When I look at the children’s faces I see resilience and stability. “There are so many children in conflict zones not able to go to school. We have shown what is possible.”
UNHCR said Mustapha’s work in the region also includes negotiating the release of Boko Haram hostages. When the 21 young women who had been held captive for more than two years were released, Mustapha was there. He had been instrumental in securing their freedom – as well as the release of 82 additional Chibok girls in May 2017.