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Dickinson College president opens doors to former captives of terrorist group, and it's not the first time

As president of American University of Nigeria, Margee Ensign welcomed young girls who fled their Boko Haram captors. Now, she's doing the same as president of Dickinson College in Carlisle.

Patience, 21, talks of fleeing Boko Haram. She now studies at Dickinson College.
Patience, 21, talks of fleeing Boko Haram. She now studies at Dickinson College.Read moreKalim A. Bhatti

CARLISLE, Pa. — After becoming president of Dickinson College last summer, Margee Ensign got a call from a philanthropic organization in Africa: Four young women who had been traumatized in a highly publicized kidnapping needed an education.

They were among more than 270 girls who had been taken in 2014 by the radical militant organization Boko Haram from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria.

The four women had escaped early on and were among 10 who had come to the United States in the aftermath, but hadn't yet had their educational aspirations fulfilled, Ensign was told.

She knew their stories well, having spent seven years as the head of the American University of Nigeria, where she took in other students who fled the ruthless group.

Now, Ensign's old world and new worlds were about to collide. The Murtala Muhammed Foundation, based in Nigeria, and the Nigerian government, offered to pay for the women's education at Dickinson.

Could these young women find educational refuge at the 2,400-student liberal arts college, a 144-acre enclave of natural limestone buildings in south central Pennsylvania, half a world away from the strife they once fled?

‘Do you know where we are going?’ 

One of the girls kidnapped that April 2014 night was a petite, soft-spoken 17-year-old. Her name was Patience. 

Patience came from a family of farmers in Nigeria, a populous country about twice the size of California. The country had long been ravaged by religious and ethnic tensions. Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, was founded there in 2002 and has terrorized swaths of the country, kidnapping and killing citizens.

She was attending a different school in 2013 when Boko Haram struck there. Her mother wouldn't let her return and instead sent Patience to the Chibok school for her senior year.

But then the terror group came to Chibok, ransacking the school, burning buildings and imposing strict Islamic law on the village. They ordered the girls into a truck, threatening to kill them if they refused.

As it rumbled along, the captives wondered whether they would survive.

"Do you know where we're going?" Patience's friend asked her.

She didn't.

"But just have faith," Patience urged. "Don't be scared. Just pray in your heart."

Then, before reaching their destination, a moment of opportunity came: Patience and her friend leaped off the moving truck.

While many of the other women taken that night would remain captives of Boko Haram for years, Patience made it home to her family. But her education abruptly stopped: She feared if she returned to school in Nigeria, Boko Haram would find her.

A plea for help

The American University of Nigeria is about 160 miles south of Chibok, in a midsize city called Yola. But news of the attack on the village had traveled swiftly, and ultimately drew an international spotlight.

A female security guard at the university approached the school's president. The guard told Ensign that her sister was among the kidnapped girls who had escaped the clutches of Boko Haram. Still, their future was in doubt.

"She's traumatized and she wants an education," the guard said. "Can we educate her?"

By that time, Ensign had been the university president for about four years.

A California native, she had traveled the world growing up, the daughter of Pan Am employees. She graduated from New College in Florida and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland. She started her career at Columbia University as an assistant professor of politics and economics and over time became intensely interested in Africa, doing much of her research in Rwanda.

While working in 2010 at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., she was recruited for the job in Nigeria. The development university offers American-style education and enrolls some of the country's elite, as well as refugees. For Ensign, it was a chance to work full time in Africa.

"You've always wanted to," her daughter told her. "Go for it."

After she arrived, Ensign helped the school draft a strategic plan, raised $160 million, created programs in law and engineering, and chaired a peace initiative.

But one of her greatest challenges was keeping the school safe from Boko Haram, which ardently opposed Western style education. To protect students and staff, the university dispatched drones and employed 650 guards.

Every night, Ensign would send an email to parents to explain safety precautions and frequently had to decide whether to evacuate. She was determined to stay.

If you shut down this university, she thought, they will win.

Millions were paying attention to Boko Haram's terror reign after the Chibok kidnapping, including Michelle Obama, Pope Francis, Angelina Jolie and Alicia Keys. A Twitter campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, caught fire.

Ensign wanted to help.

She sent a team to find out how many of the girls mentioned by the guard wanted to come to her university. There were 11. Ensign and three employees, including a former U.S. Marine, made the hourslong journey to retrieve them and their parents. It was deeper into the country's remote and volatile corners than she had ventured since arriving at the university.

Returning with the teenage girls proved challenging. Boko Haram didn't intervene. But the girls didn't talk. Neither did their parents, Ensign said. They hadn't been in a vehicle since the kidnapping and were throwing up from trauma, she said. She wondered whether she could really help.

The university assessed their skill levels and gave them a highly structured program. Ensign took the girls shopping and introduced them to swimming. Over time, more girls who had escaped came. By the time she considered returning to the U.S. last year, there were 48.

After seven years in Nigeria, Ensign took the job at Dickinson, intrigued by its 235-year history and commitment to civic engagement.

Shortly after arriving in Carlisle, another call to help the Chibok girls came, this time from her new perch at the helm of an American college.

A New Home

Earlier this month, Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, a Dickinson professor, sat with the four young Nigerian women in a class called "Learning to Learn." It's one of two they have been taking since arriving April 1 — part of a new "bridge" program to work on such basic skills as math, reading and writing to ready them possibly for a spot in fall 2019's freshman class.

"The mission really for me was clear, get them prepared for college," said Jacob, a Nigerian native and visiting international scholar who had worked with Ensign at American University.

On the anniversary of the abduction last month, the women, all now in their early 20s, gathered with Ensign in her Dickinson office. They prayed and talked about friends still in captivity.

"They're so determined," Ensign said. "They're going to work as hard as they can to be successful. This is it, the big opportunity, and they're very aware of it."

Among the group was Patience, now 21. (For security reasons, the college asked that her last name be withheld.) She came to the United States several months after she had escaped Boko Haram. Her mother had died of a heart attack one month after she arrived, and her father died the following year. Once here, she studied at a private Christian school  and attended a community college in the Bronx.

But the experience had not been trauma free.

The Wall Street Journal  reported last month that the women contend the Nigerian lawyer who helped  resettle them had exploited them, forcing them to relive their trauma in a bid to raise money, threatening to have them shipped back if they refused. The lawyer denied the accusations, according to the Journal.

Patience, meanwhile, ached for the education she had been promised. She had long dreamed of becoming a counselor or nurse practitioner and one day returning to Africa to help others.

The Murtala Muhammed Foundation told her about the opportunity at Dickinson. Patience had seen Ensign on a video and knew of her ties to Nigeria. She was eager to go.

And the fiery, 5-foot university president was eager — again — to help.

"I'm furious that they came to America to get a better education and they haven't had it, but they'll get it here," Ensign said.

Ensign hopes to enroll other students in the college's new bridge program, which aims to provide educational opportunity to students from regions of the world experiencing conflict and natural disasters and for whom higher education would otherwise be impossible.

This spring, the Nigerian women are living together in a residence hall and finding comfort in Ensign. "She talks like your mom," Patience said.

During one of Jacob's classes in May, he gave them an assignment about a book they had read, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman: Write what a central character wants and needs, is good at, and must work on. Finally, he told them, write what the character has survived.

Next, he asked the women to answer the same questions about themselves.

In a long green dress and black head wrap, Patience busily wrote her answers.

When they finished the professor asked them to describe what they survived.

"Survived?" one asked. "I don't understand."

None mentioned Boko Haram. But Patience's answer was bigger than that, about what had helped her move on: "Trusting in God. Correcting my mistakes. Trying to be happy."