Garba Haroun, 16, used to live peacefully with his family in Baga, a village on the shore of Lake Chad in Nigeria, where most of its inhabitants make a living by fishing. One day, everything changed. “The rumor had been going around already for some time. Boko Haram fighters had started kidnapping young people like me and forcing them to join their troops. Some of my friends had disappeared and none had come back alive,” he says bitterly.
In the summer of 2015, Garba and his family decided to flee in a dugout canoe to Chad. Once arrived on the other bank of Lake Chad in the town of Ngouboua, Garba quickly met with Ila Youssouf, 15, a young Chadian born in Ngouboua. “When I saw him for the first time, we quickly made friends. He spoke Fula, like me. We got along and he told me he wanted to learn French, so I took him to my schoolteacher for him to enroll,” Ila says, grinning.
More than 80% of refugee children from Nigeria in the Lake Chad region have never had the chance to go to school. “In Baga, I helped my father to fish instead. I never even thought about going to school one day. Here, that’s how it is – you have those who can go to school and become a minister and then you have those who remain fishermen or farmers their entire lives, like their parents and their grandparents before them,” Garba adds.
In February 2016, the violence caught up with the two friends. Ngouboua was attacked by Boko Haram, and many people were killed, including the chief of the village. In panic, everybody ran away. Garba tells me about this difficult time: “I was really angry because after leaving everything behind in Nigeria, I was starting to make my new life here. It was very unfair because we hadn’t done anything wrong.” Ila cuts him off and adds, “These are all matters for adults.”
By chance, Ila and Garba both wound up in the Daresalam refugee camp, where most refugees from Nigeria and Chad are now trying to find a peaceful life. “Once I arrived in Daresalam, I asked people if they knew a certain Ila. They told me he was the class president at the school named ‘Hope’ ,” Garba says, smiling, then adding, “this is where we reunited and I started back in school, for good this time, I hope.”
When I asked them if they ever quarreled, Ila answered, smiling, “Yes, like all friends, but we always manage to work things out. Garba can be a bit childish. He’s 15, but he still plays with rubber bands, while I prefer to play football. I love trying to imitate Messi’s moves,” he adds, mock-kicking an imaginary ball in the classroom, causing the two companions to laugh out loud.
Before leaving, Garba told me, “I don’t want to go back to Nigeria. I want to stay here and continue to go to school. Before, I only thought I’d be doing what my father does. Now, I understand that I need to think further if I really want to help my parents.”
Suddenly, the teachers whistled the end of recess. I promised them I’d come back to see them, and they answered, “We promise we’re going to finish school and become great men some day.” And they both left, laughing and leaning on each other’s shoulders.
Garba is shy while Ila is more a jokester and a tease, but both of them have incredible potential. I leave with the hope that they can learn more so that one day, their dreams will come true. Millions of children – like these two friends – cannot fulfill this potential because of war. I truly believe we can create conditions so that children have an equal chance to survive, develop themselves and thrive! This is the simple recipe for a fair society.
Aicha Chir Nour is Editorial and Publication Officer with UNICEF Chad