Onetime Abductees Become Advocates
Two women abducted by terrorists in Nigeria as teenagers have graduated from Southeastern University and are preparing to undertake master’s degree programs at the school in Lakeland, Florida.
In 2014, Lydia Pogu and Joy Bishara were among the 276 students kidnapped by armed Boko Haram insurgents at a boarding school in Chibok in Borno State and loaded into a convoy of trucks. They escaped with 55 others about 45 minutes after the 1 a.m. abductions by jumping out the back of the speeding high-bed trucks.
Both Pogu and Bishara received a full-ride scholarship to Southeastern. They graduated April 30. They are working on campus as housekeepers this summer before pursuing graduate degrees, which again will be totally covered by the school, in the fall.
Bishara is the oldest of eight children in her family, which includes six younger brothers. On Jan. 1, her 43-year-old mother gave birth to a second daughter, whom Joy hasn’t seen. Bishara, 25, had been a senior at the boarding school when the abduction occurred.
Pogu, 23, also comes from a large family — three brothers and four sisters. She and Bishara had been friends in Nigeria, but they are much closer now. That bond began the night of the attack.
“I prayed for God to provide a way to escape from these people,” Bishara recalls. A few other girls leaped out of the truck before her, but Bishara still felt apprehensive.
“I didn’t think if I jumped out I would survive,” she remembers. “But I thought I would rather have my mom find my corpse on the road than to never know if I was dead or alive.”
Bishara landed on her stomach and rolled, soon realizing she hadn’t been killed in the daring maneuver. Yet danger and uncertainty remained. In addition to being disoriented in the dark, the escapees faced potential threats from poisonous snakes and wild dogs, plus immediate physical harm from the thicket they ran through.
“I still have marks on my legs from thorn bushes,” Bishara says. “My only goal was to get away as far as possible, even though I didn’t know where I was going.”
Along the way, they encountered other schoolgirls who had escaped, as well as residents of the mostly Christian village who fled to the countryside because Boko Haram terrorists ransacked their homes.
“It was dark when we jumped out and we couldn’t see anything,” Pogu says. “We were confused and didn’t know which way to go.”
Both ran through the night, guided by the displaced locals seeking refuge in the surrounding forest. Ultimately, motorcyclists drove the two girls back to their families.
“I didn’t know if the motorcyclist was a terrorist — I didn’t trust anybody,” Bishara recalls. “But I needed help.”
For weeks afterward, Bishara spent nights in the bush with her family, fearful of a renewed abduction plot.
TREK TO THE U.S.
Eventually, Pogu and Bishara came to the United States through the Jubilee Campaign. Still traumatized weeks after the ordeal, Bishara feared returning to school in Nigeria.
“I wanted to become a doctor at the time, and realized I would have to go to school for that,” Bishara says. Although she knew nothing of the U.S., representatives from the religious nonprofit convinced Bishara she could attend school in the America without worrying about being snatched from campus.
Pogu, who says she still occasionally has nightmares about her harrowing experience, has gained asylum to the U.S. even though all her relatives remain in Nigeria. She last returned to her homeland in 2017, but experienced trepidation throughout the stay.
“I miss my family so much, but I don’t feel safe in Nigeria anymore,” Pogu says. She is hoping to become a U.S. citizen.
Bishara, though, says she doesn’t want to seek asylum. She believes the regulations surrounding the asylum process are too laborious and lengthy. In addition, by definition, she always would be considered at risk of being killed in returning to her homeland. She has returned to Nigeria three times since leaving, the latest in 2018. She hopes to visit again this year.
“I could never go back under the rules,” she says. “My whole life is in Nigeria. I need to see my family.”
More than 100 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls have been released after government negotiations, in which imprisoned Boko Haram leaders gained freedom in exchange. However, 112 of the predominantly Christian kidnapped students remain missing. They have been sold into sexual slavery or forced to marry members of the Islamic terrorist group.
Bishara enrolled as a premed major at Southeastern. She believed as a physician she could help change the system, treating ill people regardless of their ability to pay. But as she studied, she realized her goal of advocating for those who need resources aligned more with a career in social work. Bishara now has a bachelor’s degree in social work and she is set to pursue a master’s in the same field.
She credits her mother, Grace, for setting her on a Christian path.
“As a large family, sometimes we didn’t have enough food to eat,” Bishara recalls. “But Mom would pray before we went to bed, and the next day friends and relatives provided groceries. I realized at a young age that prayers are important and powerful.”
VOICES FOR THE VOICELESS
Bishara says her own Christian walk intensified after she relocated to the U.S. That is one reason she decided to attend an AG school.
“I’ve met a lot of amazing people who love and care about me,” Bishara says. “I see God’s miracle hand getting me where I need to be, and I want to help other people who need help.”
Likewise, Pogu has relished her Southeastern experience.
“I have made many friends and grown in my faith with God,” Pogu says. “This is really a great community. I like the way people care about each other.”
Pogu, who will study for a master’s degree in human services, has a long-term aspiration of becoming a lawyer who fights for justice for the downtrodden — such as the Chibok women remaining in captivity.
In public forums, both Bishara and Pogu have become advocates for the persecuted, making the most of the opportunities they have to share their stories. They have spoken at a Human Rights Watch event and addressed the United Nations Security Council.
“It’s always an honor to tell what has happened,” says Bishara, who will speak at the July 13-15 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. “It’s not fun to relive the past, but I want to inspire open doors for girls still in captivity.”
Although she grew up attending church in Nigeria, Pogu says she didn’t experience a personal relationship with Jesus until moving to the U.S.
“It’s important to have your own faith and walk with God anywhere you go,” Pogu says. “Coming here has opened my eyes. Friends pushed me spiritually.”
Pogu also believes God’s providence is at work in her disrupted life.
“I didn’t know I would come to America and live a life I would never have expected,” Pogu says. “God has turned it into something that wouldn’t have happened in Nigeria: getting my master’s and going to law school.”
Bottom Photo: Southeastern President Kent Ingle (right) congratulates Joy Bishara (left) and Lydia Pogu upon their graduation.