By UN Migration Agency's Julia Burpee
August 2017

Eight years of Boko Haram violence has forced more than 1.8 million people from their homes, leaving belongings, communities and lives behind, across Nigeria’s northeast. More than one million of them are children.

Hamma and her six children fled their home to escape Boko Haram. They now live in a camp for the internally displaced in northeast Nigeria.

Boko Haram has abducted at least 4,000 girls and women in northeast Nigeria, far exceeding the nearly 300 girls taken from their school in Chibok in 2014, sparking the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign and drawing attention to the conflict. Many say they were forced to witness killing or suffered sexual violence.

At seven-months pregnant, Jamila, 22, climbed trees to escape her captors, Boko Haram. She has found safety in a local displacement camp.

Boko Haram has also used children as suicide bombers and has forcibly recruited countless boys and men to commit violent acts.

It seems the large-scale conflict has left no one in the region unscathed.

More than one million children live outside their homes because of Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria.

Since 2014, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has provided counselling and group support, along with many other activities, to more than 200,000 people affected by the conflict.

The mental health and psychosocial support programme in northeast Nigeria began by providing support to the families of the girls who were taken from Chibok. Today, more than 120 IOM staff and volunteers travel around the region to help heal wounded hearts.

"I've learned to 
heal wounded hearts"

Martha, a former paediatric nurse, travels around northeast Nigeria as part of IOM's mental health teams. She offers counselling and workshops for adults, and runs games for children.

Leading games, singing and dancing is just one of the ways IOM’s mental health teams support Nigerians, particularly children, affected by the ongoing conflict.

These activities give children a safe space to play and engage many in additional support, like counselling or medical attention through IOM's humanitarian partners. IOM staff are trained to spot and assist children who show signs of distress, such as being withdrawn from others during playtime.

"I love... everything about doing theatre and playing football," says Modou Mamman of IOM's regular mental health activities at the camp for internally displaced people where he lives in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram. The 15-year-old's parents were killed in the conflict.

Boys play with Hassan at Muna Garage Camp in Maiduguri.

Drawing sessions give children another way to express themselves and their experiences, alerting IOM staff to cases of distress, family instability or other common issues related to displacement and the ongoing conflict.

"We love him so much."

Sixteen-year-old Mariam is a survivor of Boko Haram sexual violence. She escaped the group's hold two months ago. Through regular counselling - to accept her baby despite the challenging circumstances, she is adjusting to life as a mother.

IOM's mental health staff encourage acceptance and help fight stigma through counselling and group support. Many survivors and their children face stigma within their communities and families. Many women also reject their babies, but Mariam and her family are now welcoming this beautiful baby boy.

Martha and her mini namesake.

"I named her after Martha because of all the support Martha has given me," Mary says of naming her baby after one of IOM's mental health and psychosocial support team leaders.

John (left) and Mohammed laugh with IOM staff at a displacement camp in Gwoza, eastern Borno.

"When baby Martha was late, Martha encouraged me and told me not to worry."

Mary fled to Cameroon for 15 months after Boko Haram took over her town in eastern Borno - the state hardest hit by the group. Last year, she and her five kids moved to an abandoned building in Maiduguri, Borno's capital, where she gave birth to her baby girl, Martha.

IOM's Martha visits Mary and her namesake several times a week in their makeshift home in an abandoned building to provide counselling and group support to her and many others.

"It makes me proud to put a smile on somebody's face."

IOM's Samuel says of his work with John and Mohammed. "It helps to talk to Samuel and other men about things that affect us, like job loss," says John, who worked as a photographer before the conflict.

"Serving humanity is the best kind of work," Samuel says.

John and Mohammed lived under Boko Haram control for more than three years. John explains their journey:

"When everything was destroyed, we had to leave."

Today, they both live with their children at a displacement camp in Gwoza, a former Boko Haram stronghold near the border with Cameroon. They participate in regular focus group discussions led by Samuel and other IOM staff.

Wakane Camp, Gwoza

Focus group discussions for men and women provide an opportunity to share experiences and address issues, like food shortages or gender-based violence - characteristic of the conflict.

Groups meet in camps and in communities where people fleeing violence have sought shelter.

Amina from IOM teaches English and life skills to women who escaped Boko Haram, at a rehabilitation centre in Maiduguri. Many became young mothers during their captivity.

"I want to go back to my village and become a teacher" - Aisha

Classes are offered to young adults, men, and women.

Watch how we support displaced Nigerians with classes in basic English and life skills.

Three years ago, Abba Rawa (seated in white) travelled 130 km in search of safety from Boko Haram. His unflagging good humour brings joy to those around him.

Providing a safe space for Abba Rawa and other displaced men, women, and children to talk, laugh and play helps the community heal together. This year, IOM built mental health and psychosocial support resource centres at nine locations across northeast Nigeria. Many include volleyball courts and space for football.

Outside one of IOM's safe spaces in Maiduguri.

Children decorate the safe spaces with paper crafts and drawings.

Families relax inside one of IOM's safe spaces in Maiduguri.

Hamza, who works with IOM's mental health team in Banki, a town on the border with Cameroon, sums it all up:

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.