Boko Haram’s tragic abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria transpired thousands of miles away from Los Angeles, but their stories have made Angelenos’ hearts ache.
They have also prompted a call to action, as evidenced by the interfaith vigil held on June 10 at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Faith leaders grieved for the families and called on Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act.
Rabbi Beau Shapiro opened by quoting Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel. “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
“We are here to show that we are not indifferent, and we are here to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves,” Shapiro said. “So thank you. …Thank you for making a difference.”
The honorary consul general of Jamaica, Lorna Johnson, reflected on her upbringing and said there is something special about young girls and their innocence. She recalled the security she had growing up, and how much she enjoyed attending school and spending time with her classmates. Johnson said she dreamed of doing something great and changing the world.
“This is the beauty and value of our girls,” she said, adding that young girls have a right to grow up with security, education and opportunity to dream. “Three hundred girls in northern Nigeria had these rights taken away from them in one of the most vicious and brutal ways.”
Not only were they stripped of their rights, they were abducted in their school houses while they were learning, playing or sleeping in their dorms, Johnson said. Worse yet, they were abducted by people who object to the girls’ right to choose their religion and seek an education, she said.
“What is even more offensive is that the captors have stolen from the girls what is most precious — their innocence,” Johnson said, adding that the world cannot “stand idly by while men with insidious intentions mar” the possibilities in front of the young women. “They’re school girls — three hundred of them. Abducted by military men. Our humanity cannot let it stand.”
Grant Gochin, honorary consul at the Consulate of the Republic of Togo, said the abduction was not an isolated incident. He said terrorism has affected many parts of Africa, and on any given day, dozens of victims are murdered.
Gochin listed a series of headlines from newspaper coverage of some of the terrorist acts, including a story about Boko Haram killing 30 people at a football competition. Another mentioned a terrorist act that claimed 85 lives.
“These few headlines have mentioned two-hundred-and-ninety-one individual innocent victims that were brutally murdered. This is not a comprehensive list,” Gochin said. “For every murdered victim, there are multiple wounded. Think of the devastation. Imagine if your child was one of them.”
Certainly, Africa is not the only continent fighting terrorism, but it is rare for the tragedies to capture the American public’s attention, which has happened with the abduction of the Nigerian girls, he said.
“Finally, finally, finally we have one of these incidents on our front pages,” Cochin said. “It has taken the kidnapping of two-hundred-and-seventy-nine girls for the world to wake up and take note of this catastrophe going on around us.”
He said the battle is being waged in the media as well, and American citizens are the targets to be manipulated. Cochin said terrorist groups have a strategy to dominate media space to deflect attention from their agendas. He listed several terrorist organizations.
“I could stand here for a long time and list the names of the terrorist organizations, but what’s the difference between them? I’ll tell you — not very much at all,” Cochin said. “These terrorists are using a 21st Century war strategy and a 21st Century media strategy in order to take the civilized world back to the 10th Century.”
He asked the crowd to keep the girls in their thoughts in the months and years ahead, as some of them will be murdered or sold into slavery.
“Please do not forget about them. Hold these thoughts alive in your memory,” Cochin said, adding that people must educate themselves and call on the media to report worldwide terrorist issues. “Women and children worldwide are counting on you to pay attention and act.”
TV host and producer Maha Awad and Naomi Ackerman of The Advot Project read a monologue pieced together by Ackerman from testaments provided by some girls who had escaped.
“We are Boko Haram. We will bury your school. You shall not do school again. You never should have gone to school in the first place,” Ackerman said, quoting the terrorists from accounts given by the girls. “If you want to die, sit down here. We will kill you. If you do not want to die, you will enter the trucks.”
Security problems at the girls’ school had closed it for four weeks, but they wanted to take a physics exam. Officials arranged for four schools to visit the one campus to take the test.
“We wanted to get an education. We wanted to take the test. One soldier laughed. ‘Why do you need school? Instead, you need to marry. Girls as young as nine are suitable for marriage. I can sell you for a nice bride price.’ They stole all of our supplies. They burned down our school,” Ackerman read aloud.
Three girls came up with a plan to escape. They asked the terrorists if they could relieve themselves, then fled and ran for two hours.
“We ran to be free. We ran for our lives,” Ackerman continued. “I am really scared to go back to school, but how can I stop now? I have no option. I want to finish my final year exams. I want to move forward. I will not lose my dream. …I will go to school. I will get an education. I will not let them take my wings. I will fly, wounded, hurt, heart-broken and bleeding. I will fly.”
Pastor Bright Meretighan, of the Rhema House in Carson, is a native of Nigeria. He left eight years ago, but returns twice a year to check on his parents and family. Meretighan said anything can happen there at any time.
“America is a good place. We are secure here; things are OK,” he said.
Meretighan asked the audience to pray on behalf of the parents affected by the tragedy. He said people should call on the divine to bring such terrorist acts to a halt.
“All this in the world is wickedness,” Meretighan added.
Rabbi Susan Goldberg of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple invited the audience to take all the pain and the overwhelming nature of what is happening and simply think about and pray for one girl. She also asked the group to pray for a single perpetrator.
“God, please heal him,” Goldberg said. “We know that change or healing can be slow and incremental. We also know that healing can be radical and all at once. Please bring change and healing to the soul of this one man. …We want it all to end right now.”
Rev. Najuma Smith, of St. James AME Church, said that when atrocity happens, people must do something.
“What happened to the harmless woman is not just her story, but it is the story of countless unnamed women and girls, boys and men,” she said. “It is a story that spans from nation to nation, country to country, land to land.”
From South Los Angeles to Mississippi and from Sudan to Switzerland, atrocities and trauma are everywhere, Smith said.
“And we are all forced to answer the question, ‘Who’s going to speak up?’ Because it’s not OK what happened in Nigeria. But it’s also not OK what happens in South Los Angeles. …It’s not OK for human trafficking to take place. Sexual assault — not OK. College rape — not OK. Date rape — not OK. Molestation — not OK. Forced prostitution — it’s not OK. Child brides. None of it, absolutely none of it, is OK.”
Walker Temple AME Church Rev. Rosalyn Brookins spoke out against any form of oppression to women — whether it occurs in Compton or Nigeria.
“Cruelty against women is not just a white or black, Jewish or Christian, rich or poor issue,” she said. “It is a human rights issue. It crushes the self-esteem and self-worth of the one that has been victimized. But the effects of it are long lasting.”
Brookins said it demolishes the hopes and dreams of families and communities, and eats away at the fabric of generations to come. And that is why people must fight it every chance they get, especially when children are the victims, she said.
“We stand as a united voice saying we will not tolerate the enslavement of any child. We must have zero tolerance,” Brookins said.
The event was organized by Jewish World Watch. For information, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org.
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