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Nigerian teacher Zannah Mustapha wins UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Zannah Mustapha has helped to educate and feed hundreds of displaced Boko Haram orphans and his efforts have earned him the United Nations’ highest honour, the 2017 Nansen Refugee Award.



Nigerian visionary teacher Zannah Mustapha, the Director of Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School is the first Nigerian recipient of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] Nansen Refugee Award. The prize is an annual award that honors exceptional service to the plight of displaced people. Mustapha was chosen for his humanitarian work in championing the rights of children through his NGO that provides education and caters to the needs of orphans, widows and abandoned children affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.

In his reaction to receiving the Nansen Refugee Award, Mustapha told News Agency of Nigeria(NAN) in Abuja that he felt humbled and honoured to be “listed among great icons’’ in the world for his humanitarian works in the North-East.

Mustapha also told NAN that he founded his NGO in 2007 in an effort to engender peace and reconciliation. The school was founded in Maiduguri – the capital of Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency and stayed open throughout the conflict, which saw approximately 20,000 people killed across the Lake Chad region, and millions more displaced.

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“We started with 36 students and have graduated more than 1,000 students; enrolled 626 in 2017, more than half of whom are girls, including 186 IDPs with 5,000 on the waiting list. These children include children from both the military and the Boko Haram and they have grown to see themselves as one. If it continues like this, then we are sure of peaceful reconciliation and an end to the insurgency,’’ Mustapha said.

Mustapha’s work in the region also includes negotiating the release of hostages. When the 21 young women who had been held captive for more than two years were released, Mustapha was there. He had been instrumental in securing their freedom – as well as the release of 82 additional Chibok girls in May 2017.

“It’s still one of the highest points in my life,” he says of the release to CNN. “This is something that I worked for… and I had the confidence that I would get them and that confidence became a reality,” he added.


Mustapha and his volunteer group of educators know the risks they face, but their work is too important not to soldier on. “This school promotes peace,” Mustapha said. “It is a place where every child matters,” he added. “These children shall be empowered, empowered in such a way that they can stand on their own.”

In a statement issued in Geneva, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said: “Education is one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children overcome the horrors of violence and forced displacement… It empowers young people, equips them with skills and works to counter exploitation and recruitment by armed groups… Conflict can leave children with physical and emotional scars that are deep and lasting as it forces them from their homes, exposes them to unspeakable atrocities and often rips apart their families. The work Mustapha and his team are doing is of the utmost importance, helping to foster a peaceful coexistence and rebuild communities in North-Eastern Nigeria… With this award, we honour his vision and services.’’

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Speaking with NAN in Abuja, Jose-Antonio Canhandula, UNHCR Representative to Nigeria, said that Mustapha was recognised for his efforts in championing the rights of children.

“In addition to his educational work, Mustapha has demonstrated a commitment to helping all parts of the society affected by the conflict which includes setting up cooperatives for widows and supporting nearly 600 women in Maiduguri. The UNHCR recognizes his role as a mediator between the government and the insurgents for the release of the 82 Chibok girls and the 21 young women held captive by Boko Haram for two years,’’ Canhandula said.


Norwegian Refugee Council, Secretary-General, Jan Egeland, said that the Nansen Refugee Award’s recognition of Mustapha’s brave works highlighted the importance of education for the future of Nigeria. “Schools lie at the heart of a society and destroying them crushes the chance of Nigeria’s next generation succeeding,’’ Egeland said.