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Nigerian communities in Texas look home in grief

  • Article by: RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
  • Associated Press
  • May 9, 2014 - 11:40 PM

HOUSTON — Pastor Michael Osifo recalls being able to play soccer until nightfall as a child in Nigeria. Augusta Ekong remembers sleeping in her boarding school bed, with no fear and no need for security workers.

That Nigeria is gone, they say, replaced with violence, bloodshed and fear.

Thousands of miles from their home countries, in Houston and Dallas — which have large Nigerian populations — Osifo and Ekong are gathering their communities, seeking to help resolve a crisis in which nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from a school by Islamic militants and more than 100 others were killed in a marketplace in Borno state in northeastern Nigeria.

Osifo, pastor of The Redeemed Christian Church of God gathered his congregants Friday in Sugar Land, Texas, to address the tragedy. Ekong is working with other groups, including a Muslim organization, to hold a rally Sunday in front of Dallas' City Hall.

"What can we do?" Osifo said ahead of Friday's service. "We need ideas. How can we take this thing to the next level?"

"We know the Western world has agreed to help us," Osifo said, referring to U.S. and British assistance in helping to obtain the release of the 276 girls being held by the Boko Haram militants. "But that's not enough."

Boko Haram, a Muslim extremist group that aims to impose Islamic law in Nigeria, kidnapped the girls April 15. On Monday, the group attacked a market in Gamboru, and estimates of the death toll range from 100 to 300. On Friday, British security agents arrived in Lagos to assist Americans and Nigerians in the search for the girls.

Osifo grew up in Benin, the capital of Edo state in southern Nigeria. He left about 20 years ago and moved to California before coming to Houston in 2002.

The Nigerian community there has formed churches and opened ethnic grocery stores and restaurants, where they now gather and talk about the crisis.

"It burns my heart because the Nigeria I left many years ago is no more," Osifo said. "Today we are seeing more of that violence everywhere. People are being killed, homes are being destroyed, churches, schools."

Ekong, 52, also grew up in southern Nigeria, in the delta town of Uyu in Akwa Ibum state. The strife in the north and the strict Islamic lifestyle that discourages women from getting an education is foreign to her. But like most girls, including those who were kidnapped, she went to a boarding school at the age of 12.

The thought that she could be snatched at night and taken away is frightening, said Ekong, who teaches Nigerian and African culture at schools and museums in Texas.

"Our sisters in the north are suffering, and we want it to stop," she said.

Ndidi Wozichi Ananaba, a registered nurse who is originally from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, attended Osifo's service Friday night.

"I feel kind of helpless, like, 'Well, there's nothing I can do. I'm over here,'" she said. "So it's not easy — you feel a little bit of shame, to be honest.

"It's very, very hard, very sad, and we just keep those girls lifted up on prayer," she said.

© 2014 Star Tribune