Keeping the Dreams Alive: Supporting Children in Northeast Nigeria

When someone goes missing due to conflict, the children they leave behind can feel that loss more than most. In response, we ran a program for children in Maiduguri to make sure their needs would not be overlooked.


When family members go missing due to armed conflict, they leave behind relatives who live in a shadow of uncertainty.  Their loved ones have gone missing, leaving a void that seems impossible to fill.

For more than a decade of armed conflict in northeast Nigeria, many people have fled their homes searching for safety. Bama, for instance, a town in Borno State, midway on the road between Maiduguri and the Cameroonian border, was no different. Fifteen-year-old Hadiza Muhammad’s family was one of those affected. Her father went missing 10 years ago. They haven’t seen him since.

Hadiza tells us "I learnt about my day, how I will write and plan my day. I wish to enroll into secondary school because I want to study law and become a barrister to help people and my family," she says. "We used to think a lot about our missing parents and not socialize but now we mix well, gradually."

Hadiza Muhammad, Accompaniment Program Enrollee

The ICRC’s mental health and psychosocial support teams in Nigeria run a program designed to guide and support the children of those who have disappeared, through counselling. One of the counsellors, Muhammad Adam Muhammad, has also lost a loved one due to the conflict, and was trained by the ICRC to run these sessions himself. Muhammad knows what it feels like to lose a loved one.

Throughout the program, every week Muhammad gathered 51 young hearts, each burdened by the heavy weight of their family's unknown fate and counselled them.

Muhammad Adam, Accompaniment Program, Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria.

“As counsellors we teach children that it is important not to stay idle, good to go to school,” Muhammad tells us. “I counsel them once every week... I will rate their progress at ninety per cent, which is very encouraging”. 

A special book adapted by the ICRC from a version designed by the Swedish Red Cross – The Book About Me – was used, containing activities that encouraged reflection, self-esteem and future aspirations.

Each of the seven community counsellors running the sessions received training and continuous mentoring by the ICRC’s Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support team. The sessions became a lifeline, a sanctuary where participants could share their pain, fears, and dreams.

In one session, counsellors witnessed the transformative power of education from a young participant, Fatima Muhammad Aji, who, against all odds, had never set foot in a classroom but was inspired by her elder sister, from whom she learned to read and speak English.

Fatima Muhammad Aji, Accompaniment Program enrollee

While reading from a letter she'd written during the session, Fatima says, "I want to be a medical doctor to help sick people from danger... We learnt a lot from the lessons we received. I wrote my name, my town, who loves me and who helps me, time for work and play," she tells us.

Her dreams for the future shone brightly, prompting her counsellor Muhammad to encourage her parents to enroll her in school, an essential step towards realizing her aspirations.

Khadija Muhammad, Accompaniment Program enrollee

Another participant, Khadija Muhammad says "I remember learning about the 'tree of life'. We drew pictures of those who help us in our lives, who for me includes my elder brother, grandfather, and aunts. "We also wrote letters to our future self – that school is good and we should study well. I want to build a house and a hospital when I grow up to help others and my family and become a doctor."

Abubakar Muhammad, Accompaniment Program enrollee

Some participants were already in school, and already looking forward towards next steps in their education. 14-year-old Abubakar Muhammad has done his exams and is awaiting admission into secondary school.
Through the session activities, they were encouraged to talk with remaining family members to learn more about their own lives. During the sessions, he says, "I learnt where I came from and the current town we live in. I drew my mother because she is the only one I know that cares for me after my father went missing. I hope one day he returns. I want to become a doctor to help people, buy a car and with schooling I know I will achieve it."

Many of these young souls have experienced trauma first-hand, grappling with the loss of a parent or guardian. Their struggles manifest in stress, anxiety, disruption to their normal lives, school attendance and playtime. Sometimes witnessing other children revel in the warmth of parental love would only intensify the pain they felt. But through the sessions, invisible wounds began to heal – and laughter seemed to echo in their hearts again.

Every week Muhammad gathers 51 young hearts, each burdened by the heavy weight of their family's unknown fate, and counsels them.

The program in Maiduguri became not only a sanctuary for families of the missing but also a beacon of hope, lighting the path toward a brighter future for each child that participated.

By the end of the last round of community counselling sessions, in December 2023, more than 330 children had taken part.

The ICRC continues this work, in Maiduguri as around the world – partnering with communities as they go.

We do this work because children are our future. And their needs, especially in times of conflict, cannot be overlooked.