Nigerian student Simisoluwa Ogunleye draped herself in black, behind a table at the University of California in Riverside. She stood beside photos of mothers screaming, crying and praying for their young daughters’ return, as part of an international campaign gone viral against Nigerian kidnappers that’s touched down on the Southland.
Ogunleye is one of many Southern Californians jumping on the viral tidal wave of the #BringBackOurGirls online campaign that has seen the faces of First Lady Michelle Obama and a crush of celebrity crusaders such as Sean John Combs, or Puff Daddy.
The global outrage prompting local vigils, protests and demonstrations throughout Los Angeles and the Inland area was sparked several weeks ago when the public learned that a group of Muslim extremist gunmen stormed the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in northern Nigeria in the early morning hours of April 15. They kidnapped more than 200 teenage girls from the boarding school, set it ablaze and herded the students away in pick-up trucks.
A second report surfaced of 11 additional girls kidnapped from northeastern Borno state. As of Friday, 276 schoolgirls were being held captive, at least two died of snakebites and about 20 others were ill, according to Associated Press reports.
The Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” is against educating girls and women, and has threatened to sell the girls into slavery.
For female students such as Ogunleye, 21, who helped organize a vigil Wednesday on the Riverside campus, with the Nigerian Students Association, the mass kidnappings were personal.
She started school in Nigeria, but left at the age of 5 when her parents won a lottery to immigrate to the United States,
“It hit close to home... If we weren’t fortunate enough to come to America, we would have stayed in Nigeria. So it could have happened to us,” said Ogunleye, who dressed in black for demonstrations, alongside about 40 others from the Nigerian student group.
Her mother was educated in the same area but a different region than the kidnapped girls, and suffered similar discrimination, teaching Ogunleye to value education.
“The Nigerian association is mostly girls. We know how much we value our education. We would hate to see this happen, for somebody to come and abduct us,” she said.
The Los Angeles and Inland areas have the highest concentrations of Nigerians in Southern California, said Solomon Williams Obotetukudo, spokesman of the Rancho Cucamonga-based Nigerian-American Public Affairs Committee, a national social welfare and political group.
The group sent a letter to the U.S. State Department asking for intervention. Their group is mobilizing forces nationally and in Southern California to stage events spreading awareness.
On Monday, a prayer vigil is starting at 7 p.m. at International Christian Center in Hawthorne and will be held daily at that time until the girls are returned, said organizers.
“I cannot even fathom going to school to pick up my daughter and somebody gives me some cockamamie story that somebody came to the school and took them,” said Nigerian activist and Rancho Palos Verdes resident Lara Okunubi, who is spreading word of the vigil. “Honestly for me, there are two columns in life. There’s the column of things that you can change and there’s the column of things that you cannot change... We have to stand up for these girls.”
Further fueling the reason so many have stepped into the campaign to help, is the image of a young, innocent victim, said professor G. Ugo Nwokeji, director of the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies.
“I think it’s because girls evoke the image of the vulnerable ... and perhaps defenselessness,” Nwokeji said. “Of course, if it had been any group it would have been bad, but in the case of girls, it’s a different thing, and also when you think of the possibility of rape, when you consider they made reference to (selling the girls).”
Prayer warriors at Joyful Nations Ministries in Ontario have the nameless girls on prayer lists, said Pastor Adam Olayiwola. And the UCLA chapter of the Nigerian Student Association is creating a video of reactions to the kidnapping crisis, in addition to organizing a rally.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” association president Nedra Chijioke said about her initial response when learning of the crisis on Facebook. “I think it’s just basically raising awareness... It’s disappointing that people still have that mindset” of not educating girls.
Condemning the act was the Washington D.C.-based National Council of Nigerian Muslim Organizations, which held a news conference this week speaking against the extremists and their treatment of girls.
“They are a bunch of criminals,” said spokesman Kola Akinade. “There’s nowhere in the Koran that supports what they’re doing... There’s nothing in my religion that says I should not send my daughter to get an education.”
Simi Valley resident Taiwo Fanu, president of Moremi Women, a Southern California-based Nigerian group devoted to fostering Nigerian-American culture, is holding meetings to organize protests. She said the issue is on everyone’s mind, the community simply needs to organize.
Even owners at the Sola African and Caribbean Food Markets in North Hills markets on Sepulveda Boulevard, and Totos’ African Cuisine in Van Nuys say they hear a regular buzz of conversation about the kidnapped girls, and some are not sure what they can do.
But mothers such as Woodland Hills resident Amaka Ada Akudinobi refuses to keep silent over the kidnappings from her native Nigeria.
The mother of four is not waiting for direction.
She held up signs and chanted slogans at a Carson rally last week, called the office of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, sent an email to state Sen. Barbara Boxer and signed a petition intended for the White House.
Her Facebook avatar says “Chibok girls” and “#234” - the African country’s international calling code. And she’s trying to convince everyone she knows to post similar avatars this Mother’s Day.
“We have to take a stand for humanity; we can’t fold our hands just because we live out here and say it’s not our problem,” Akudinobi, a family law attorney, said. “To think of a child being abducted that way, it blows my mind. It brings me to tears.”
Staff Writer Brenda Gazzar contributed to this story.