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Cracked skin and bullets

Last year Asiya Rodrigo teamed up with AusRelief to establish safe houses for orphans and widows in Nigeria who have been victims of Boko Haram’s brutal tyranny. She tells The Point Magazine about her work in Nigeria and how it has shaped a significant part of her character.

Some of these children come to us suffering complex trauma and we see evidence in that through their drawings. We don’t ask them about their experiences or past but rather encourage them to draw. Some of the drawings we see are of the massacres. In each of these drawings you can see dotted lines; they’ve depicted someone shooting at someone in the head and the dotted lines are the bullets traveling. These dotted lines are a common feature and these kids have traced how the bullets have travelled. They show the spilling of blood and what they’ve seen.”

This is just one of many experiences witnessed by Sydney-based Asiya Rodrigo, who works both as a project manager and volunteer for international aid initiatives.  She has recently returned to Sydney from a long trip to Nigeria working with orphans and widows who fled their towns and witnessed massacres at the hands of terrorist group Boko Haram. 

After living in Nigeria with her children for thirteen years, while working on a number of projects, including a stint as a teacher in a monastery, Rodrigo told The Point Magazine her work in Nigeria is now a significant part of her character.

“I have a great attachment to the country and the amount of work that needs to be done to help people who need assistance there. I found myself going back because the government at the time was not functional and required the efforts of people dedicated and passionate to establish structures.”

Last year Rodrigo teamed up with AusRelief to establish safe houses for orphans and widows in Nigeria who have been victims of Boko Haram’s brutal tyranny. The safe houses offer sanctuary and a positive learning environment to the victims.

“All of them have witnessed massacres, the majority have witnessed the killing of their own parents as well as many people they knew. Their towns were destroyed and even other children they use to play with have been killed. These children have come with these memories and have walked with other survivors, thousands of kilometres to reach safety and get to where they are now.”

There are two safe houses currently based in Nigeria. Although AusRelief and Rodrigo support the project, the widows who reside in the safe houses also play a role in assisting with the teaching of children. Many of the children are referred to by local organisations or are identified on a needs basis by the project. 

Rodrigo said their approach to helping the orphans and widows is non-intrusive and involves unstructured learning where children learn at their own pace for a process of individual healing.

“With these two safe houses, we have to be very sensitive not to re-traumatise the children and women. They’re coming to us through the network of internally displaced people and street children, who are basically the eyes and ears of any city. They’re very young from ages 2-12, and they don’t necessarily share what has happened to them. We can identify what happened to them in the first few weeks through their pictures. They go through a therapeutic process of safety and love and express some of the pain they are going through. We don’t ask them directly about their story because we don’t want to retraumatise them. We have a gentle and gradual approach,” she said.

Boko Haram is an extremist group, established in 2002 and based in north-eastern Nigeria. The name of the organisation roughly translates, as 'Western education is a sin'.  In 2014, it announced its allegiance to the terrorist organisation ISIS, and in April that same year, the group drew international condemnation by abducting more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok town in Borno state, saying it would treat them as slaves and marry them off. Late last year, the United Children’s Fund warned that as many as 75,000 children will die over the next year in famine-like conditions created by Boko Haram. 

"We saw some children whose skin was so cracked and dusty they’re skin looked like the red Australian desert "

– Asiya Rodrigo

Although Rodrigo has met many children and women who now reside in the safe houses, one young girl’s story reminded her of the resilience of these children.

“We had a girl who was silent for a month, she didn’t speak to anyone about anything. After some time she was able to summon the inner strength to not only speak but to also sing and recite the Quran in front of others, which was wonderful. These are things she used to do in her community and for her to share that with those around her after not speaking was a true testament to her will and power to heal. Some children really prosper and find healing in that environment and go back to being children again not just survivors. Their resilience is so profound.”

The trauma the children have experienced is not only at the hands of Boko Haram, Rodrigo said. Many of the communities that play host to internally displaced orphans and widows can also play a role in further isolating them.

“These children and women have also survived the poor treatment of some communities who have not accepted them. They’ve been called names because they may be unclean or have no parents and don’t have many clothes… They’re often exploited and in some cases (have been) put into slavery.  The host state doesn’t have the capacity to look after these children’s education and they are blocked from attending school so that can add to their trauma and struggle.”

Rodrigo said many children and women are deprived of the most basic needs, even those who have fled to refugee camps, because aid resources are often intercepted and don’t always reach those in need.

“There is so much corruption around what these women and children receive and what should be supplied, some things never reach them including things for education. It’s a very vulnerable place for women and children who also get exploited. We saw some children whose skin was so cracked and dusty they’re skin looked like the red Australian desert. Some women were breastfeeding children and these mothers haven’t eaten in days and haven’t had the required nutrition but were still producing milk for feeding children. Their survival instinct was so immense.”




Rodrigo said that many of the children in the safe houses had experienced trauma at multiple levels, yet still had an extraordinary capacity to forgive some of the very people who perpetrated crimes against them.

“Some of these children are even ready to forgive the communities that traumatised them. There was a group that donated a bundle of clothing to the children and these kids took one piece for themselves and the remainder they wanted to deliver those clothes back to the host community. Imagine the strength of the heart and the pain and to not only forgive but to follow up with an act of good to the people that hurt you. They came back skipping and were so happy. They felt proud and dignified they felt like leaders and it’s really inspiring.”

Rodrigo recounts visiting one of the refugee camps before establishing the safe houses.

“One of the things we did when we landed in Nigeria was we visited an ordinary camp, they didn’t witness massacres, they’re just children who were abandoned and ended up in the orphanage. Just seeing the way the government orphanages are run, you see the empty look on the children’s faces, they don’t have love around them and the babies don’t get picked up and held by the people who work there. There’s not enough nutritious food, no maintenance of the playground, you had people park their cars on the playground, blocking access to the rides for the children. Some of them were sitting in a gloomy dark room. There’s no sense of privacy or safety for children and all these neighbourhood men hang around. I don’t know if these children are safe…I wish that I could take a big blanket and sweep them all up and take them to a safe space.”

Rodrigo saidthat the most difficult part of her role is to walk away from the safe houses and return to Australia.

“There are all these people that need assistance and support, but you can’t possibly help everyone, only a handful. I walk away from these families, and for me it’s the most heartbreaking thing. I feel like these children and women are teaching me and helping me far more than what I’m offering them. We can tell their stories and hope the situation improves for them and are able to at some stage in the future if they wish, return home.”

Rodrigo said although there is no age restriction on when the women and children can leave the safe houses, she hopes it will become a space that they can call home. 

“We hope that they will always be able to come here and consider it home…until they’re ready to leave the nest so to speak. It all depends on them we don’t know what direction the world will take us in, we can’t foresee at that at this stage. All we can do is equip them to develop themselves internally and ensure they are prepared to walk into that future world and create opportunities for themselves and to sustain that family network. We have each other to help them along the way.”

The Point

One Australian woman’s incredible mission to help survivors of Boko Haram massacre


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