Moments before a Hempstead High School event Tuesday marking the one-year anniversary of the mass abduction of 250-plus Nigerian school girls got underway, Assistant Principal Olga Brown-Young turned to a sea of students and educated them on the significance of a tragic event that happened more than 5,000 miles away from Long Island.
Her voice rising, Brown-Young said they had gathered in solidarity with demonstrators worldwide commemorating the day the 276 girls were taken—53 were said to have escaped during the kidnapping—and to send a clear message: “We want those girls back!”
Standing under a cloud-covered sky outside the high school’s sprawling campus, speakers one-by-one echoed Brown-Young’s call for the girls’ safe return. They stood amid a backdrop of at least 100 students, some holding white signs that blared: “Bring back our girls”—a call-to-action that began in Nigeria and spread on social media in the weeks and months after their tragic kidnapping at the hands of the blood-thirsty, anti-West militant group Boko Haram.
One year later, the girls—many of whom are the same age as the Hempstead High School students at Tuesday’s event—haven’t been heard from since. Many fear that the girls, kidnapped from their campus dormitories at a government-run boarding school in Chibok last April, have been forced into marriages with militants or have been killed. Others refuse to give up on them, holding out hope that the once budding teens will eventually be safely returned to their grief-stricken families.
“Those girls did not deserve that,” Brown-Young told the students. “Parents haven’t seen or heard from them for a year.”
Village of Hempstead Deputy Mayor Waylyn Hobbs said the community was proud “that our young people are taking a stand” and prayed for the girls’ safe return.
Perhaps the most impassioned plea came from Hempstead Union Free School District school board trustee Sherley Brazley, who credited the school district for taking a “global stand.” Speaking of today’s youth, she said, “these young people are our future.”
Two students, Joselyn Alvarez, a junior, and Osato Irowa, a freshman whose parents emigrated from Benin City in southern Nigeria, took to the podium and asked the one question thousands of others have been pondering since the girls were taken a year ago.
“Why has nothing been done?” they said, reading from prepared remarks. “There is no rational justification for their actions,” the students said of Boko Haram.
“It’s time to bring our girls back,” they added.
Dozens of student were then handed red ribbons, which they tied around nearby trees as a reminder that the girls remain missing.
While students here were using their voices to spread awareness about the lost girls’ plight, hundreds spilled into the streets Tuesday in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and held vigils in honor of the kidnapped students.
The anniversary comes weeks after sweeping political change in Nigeria where President Goodluck Jonathan was voted out of office, partly due to what his critics said was a lax response to the kidnapping and failure to aggressively defend the country against Boko Harm’s assault.
“They missed the opportunity to immediately go after the girls,” said Pastor Laolu Akande of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Bay Shore.
“Nobody did anything,” Akande said. “There was no kind of prevention.”
Akande, a native Nigerian, has also reported on his home country for years in both Nigerian and western newspapers.
Not only was Jonathan’s government ridiculed for taking weeks to simply acknowledge the kidnapping took place, but also for reportedly disregarding an intelligence report predicting the mass abduction, Akande said.
He said he’s already had discussions with people affiliated with the incoming government and is hopeful the girls will be reunited with their families, as long as the new government, led by President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, takes a new approach.
“We believe these girls are still alive,” he said.
GMB’s statement on the first anniversary of the kidnap by Boko Haram of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok http://t.co/RfvZCMqTIO
— Muhammadu Buhari (@ThisIsBuhari) April 14, 2015
As for the U.S. government, Akande called on officials to target Boko Haram like it has the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“This is the time for the U.S. government to do everything in its power,” he said.