By Jennifer Johnson
Since 1921, Mountain Mission School has provided a high-quality education as well as a home for thousands of children in need. The school has always welcomed kids from countries around the world, but recently its ministry has extended to include survivors of the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, including several of the girls kidnapped by the terrorist organization last April.
From Capitol Hill to Chibok, Nigeria, to its beautiful campus in Grundy, Virginia, this small school is playing a large role in bringing hope and healing to a number of brave young women—and the world is watching.
A Young Girl Escapes . . .
Deborah Peter lived in the small Nigerian village of Chibok, where Boko Haram terrorists have threatened Christians and students for years. The group, whose name means “Western education is a sin,” has destroyed more than 500 schools and killed thousands of people in the region. In 2011 they came for Deborah’s father.
“The men told my dad he should deny his Christian faith,” she said in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs last May. When he refused, they shot him three times and then turned on her brother, Caleb, shooting him in the mouth and then dragging Deborah between the two corpses. She lay there, traumatized, until the army found her the next day.
A pastor friend of the family helped her to escape the region, and the Jubilee Campaign, an organization promoting human rights and religious freedom around the world, helped her flee to America—and to Mountain Mission School.
“One of our former staff members crossed paths with someone from the Jubilee Campaign, which was working to keep the public aware of Boko Haram and its crimes,” says Chris Slone, president at the school. “They finally received a visa for Deborah, but it required her enrollment at a school. Of course, we were happy to welcome her to Mountain Mission.”
Deborah arrived in September 2013 and began a long, slow climb toward healing. Slone and his team found a Nigerian-American adolescent trauma therapist who began working with Deborah, as well as training the school staff.
“Because of the trauma Deborah experienced, her development was arrested educationally, socially, and emotionally,” Slone says. “In addition to the horrific experience of seeing her father and brother die, she had lived in this village that had been preyed upon for years. The sounds of gunfire were common.”
. . . to Make a Huge Impact
The world began to learn more about Boko Haram when the terrorist organization kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls from their classrooms in Chibok in April 2014.
“Deborah had been asked from time to time if she wanted to share her story, and she had always said no,” Slone says. “But when those girls were kidnapped from the school her own mother had attended, she decided she was ready. She said, ‘I want to talk so the world will do something.’”
First stop was a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., where Deborah shared the stage with Emmanuel Ogebe, an international human rights lawyer.
“After that, it seemed like the whole world was clamoring to talk to her,” Slone says. “She became the face of the issue and was invited to address the House of Representatives.”
He accompanied Deborah, then 15, and Ogebe for a trip that included private meetings with members of Congress, a press conference, and a hearing with the undersecretaries of state and defense before the full Foreign Relations Committee.
“She testified in the morning at a 90-minute hearing,” Slone says. “Her testimony resulted in a very vocal bipartisan response, clamoring for the administration to act. Just a few hours later, we were in the office of Sheila Jackson Lee, a representative from Texas, when the word came that President Obama was sending 80 troops to Chad to help find the girls. Ms. Lee looked at Deborah and said, ‘That’s because of you. Your courage mobilized the American government.’”
Unfortunately, neither the work to find the missing girls nor the U.S. relationship with the Nigerian army has borne much fruit; as this article goes to press, The New York Times is reporting that many of the kidnapped girls may have been married to Boko Haram fighters, and the terrorist group continues to plant bombs and kill villagers in Chibok.
However, Mountain Mission’s ministry is just getting started. Several of the kidnapped girls escaped, running through the bush and miles of snake-infested woods to find safety, and six of them are now students at the school.
“The Jubilee Campaign has been holding them in a few safe locations and providing counseling,” Slone says.
The pastor who helped Deborah escape the country was also eventually killed by Boko Haram, and Mountain Mission is working to provide a home for his daughter, as well. Most of the girls, even those already 17 or 18 years old, will be at the school at least two years to finish their education, learn English, and recover from the trauma of their experience.
“Though we don’t charge tuition, it costs about $15,000 per student per year to be at Mountain Mission, and of course we’d like people to consider giving to this and supporting the girls’ education,” Slone says. “We don’t get money from the government for them—we’re not going to endanger our ministry by doing that. So we rely on Christians and Christian churches—their contributions of money and volunteer time have made a way for kids since 1921.”
At the same time, Slone says he tries to be careful as he walks the line between sharing the girls’ stories and respecting their privacy.
“I want to protect the girls, first and foremost,” he says. “But every time I share this need with a church, the room grows almost unnervingly quiet, because it connects the body of Christ here in the States with a real, immediate issue of persecution against Christians. It’s empowering to believers here that they can make a real difference for some of these girls the entire world has been focused on. Part of my message is that by supporting us you really are helping to fight this fight against Boko Haram.”
Of course, Mountain Mission continues its ministry to hundreds of other kids from the U.S. as well as other countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe.
“Our heart is to help kids in need—we don’t care where they come from,” Slone says. “Just as Deborah did, all of our other kids come to us through relational connections and word of mouth. We work the harvest field here, and God brings the increase from wherever he chooses. We would love to hear from readers if there are kids in their churches who need help.”
The school also welcomes children who do not come from a Christian background, but “you come understanding that we’re here to share Jesus every single day,” Slone says. The school currently enrolls 250 kids.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” he says. “We’re all just glad to be part of the solution for at least a few of these girls. Their faith is inspiring.”
Jennifer Johnson is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.