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Catholic Priest Facing Danger Daily to Serve Hundreds of Refugees in Nigerian Town

Charles, 33-year-old father of a family who is a refugee at Pulka in Nigeria's Borno State. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need

Fr. Christopher, a Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Maiduguri in Nigeria, faces danger every time he travels to Pulka, a small town in the country’s Borno state to serve hundreds of refugees in the small town.

The Priest told Catholic Pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) United States, that people who have been displaced by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria are forced to live as refugees in tents that are scattered in Pulka. Here, they still face the danger of attacks.

In the Monday, December 13 report, Fr. Christopher says that he risks every time he travels to Pulka to serve the people who he says are in deep need of encouragement.

“There are continuing attacks, and some people get killed. It is by no means easy, and it is not easy for me either, simply getting here. Coming and going is always a risk, but it is important to me to do everything I can to help these people,” he says.

He adds, in reference to the hundreds of refugees living in Pulka, “They can’t go far from the refugee camps, since their security cannot be guaranteed outside the camps. In any case, in the rainy season it is more difficult to move around. They go out to till their fields, because they have something to live on.”

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ACN reports that Fr. Christopher is beating the odds to minister to the refugees living in the town that is located close to the border with Cameroon and some 75 miles from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in Northeast Nigeria.

The foundation adds, in reference to the Catholic Priest identified by a single name, “He himself is living in an abandoned house, since Boko Haram destroyed the church and the rectory in Pulka in 2014.”

ACN reports that many of the victims of Boko Haram are still refugees in their own country and face daily trauma and anxiety, adding, “The danger has not passed, but the Church is bringing them consolation and hope.”

The foundation recounts the story of Naomi, a Nigerian woman who watched as her mother was killed years ago. The image of the Boko Haram brutality, Naomi told ACN, is still fresh in her mind and it causes her to experience nightmares.

“I don’t want there to be any night-time. I wish it was always daytime. My nights are full of fear, anxiety, nightmare,” Naomi says, and adds, “I get frightened as soon as night falls.”

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ACN reports that Naomi always remembers being abducted, the terrorists storming her town, forcing her to “marry” a Boko Haram terrorist or witnessing one of the extremist insurgents murdering someone in her family.

According to the Pontifical charity foundation, Naomi is just one of more than 30,000 internally displaced Nigerians in Pulka.

Similarly, Charles, a young father of a family who is 33 and a refugee in the same place, also admits to having recurrent nightmares.

He tells ACN in the December 13 report, “I relive the time when we were living in hiding. Since the terrorists used to attack by night, we would get out of the town as soon as night began to fall and hide in the bush. Many nights I still dream that I’m in hiding.”

ACN reports that Charles and Naomi are now living in one of the 20 refugee camps in Borno State.

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Fr. Christopher narrates to ACN that Boko Haram attacks changed the lives of Naomi and Charles completely.

“Muslims are a majority in Borno State… but Naomi and Charles are Christians. Without their faith, many people would have not been able to endure so much suffering,” the Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Maiduguri who is ministering to the IDPs says.

He explains that militants first tried to frighten and threaten the Christians, trying to force them to convert. When they failed, they began to get more violent, he says, and adds, “The Priests had to hide in the mountains, but the insurgents of Boko Haram continued to harass and persecute the people.”

“If they converted, they would not be hurt, people were told,” the Priest narrates, and adds, “Eventually, the situation became so difficult that between 2015 and 2016 many people decided to pack up their belongings and leave the country, crossing the frontier and seeking refuge in Cameroon.”

Naomi recounted fleeing to Cameroon and leaving everything behind.

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“It was by no means easy,” she told ACN, and added, “Our feet were swollen and blistered, and it was too much for us. My sister was captured by Boko Haram, but she had a baby in her arms and that was the only reason they let her go. It wasn’t her baby, as it happens, she was only carrying it at that moment, but it saved her life. Many other people, like my mother, were murdered.”

ACN reports that the vast majority of the people from the Pulka area fled to Cameroon.

In Cameroon’s town of Minawao alone there were at one point more than 60,000 Nigerian refugees, the charity foundation reports, and adds, “They stayed there for several years, until the Nigerian army succeeded in recapturing the towns and villages … and persuaded them to return.”

However, the situation back home in Nigeria is still very precarious, Charles tells ACN, and explains, “We were refugees in Cameroon, then we returned and have been living here for two years now, but the situation is still unsafe.”

“We are once again living in our own country, in our own area, in our beloved Pulka, but we are living as refugees. We are nearer to our home than when we were living in Cameroon, but once again we are living in danger,” Charles says.

On her part, Naomi told ACI that Fr. Christopher was working selflessly to restore hope among the refugees who had lost everything in the Boko Haram attacks.

“Life in Cameroon was so difficult that we thought we would never hope again,” she said, and added, “Fr. Christopher is a source of inspiration for us. When we are down, he gives us courage. He is a true father to all of us and is trying to fill the gaps in our lives left by our missing family members, because many of them were murdered. He cares for us as if we were his own family.”

Naomi continues, “God is providing and helping us, thanks to so many people around the world who have not forgotten us. We pray that God may give strength to all these benefactors and that you may be able to continue doing your work and supporting us.”

According to Naomi, Christmas is a particularly difficult time for the Catholic community in Pulka.

She says, “Before the crisis, Christmas was a time of great joy, because our relatives used to come from a long way away and celebrate together with us. When the attacks began, Christmas stopped being what it had been before; we couldn’t sing Christmas carols in the community or visit other people’s houses; we couldn’t even go out of our houses at night-time. The situation was so dangerous that Christmas stopped being a festival, and we couldn’t celebrate it.”

Charles, a father of four, adds, “Celebrating Christmas is hard in our situation. Most of us who once lived in Pulka, have lost everything.”

He continues, “The Gospel gives me the strength to face all this suffering and to endure everything we confront each day. Jesus Christ foretold the suffering that we are going through. Suffering is part of being Christian. Our lives are in His hands. I am filled with hope when I remember the words of Jesus, that He will reward us at the end of our lives. Jesus Christ is my salvation, and that is what I celebrate at Christmas.”

According to Naomi, what the refugees need most, as the rest of the world celebrates Christmas, are basic necessities such as food and medication.

“What we most need here is food, tents and clothing. We are even seeing some cases of cholera now and we don’t have any place to go for medical treatment. It would also be a gift to get help with our academic studies; some of us were students before the extremist attacks, and we had to give it up because we had no money to continue,” she says.

Fr. Christopher says that the situation of the refugees in Pulka “is beautiful and painful at the same time.”

“They have lost their homes; they have lost many loved ones, but they live the virtue of hope and they celebrate life. They trust in the Church, because she is the one who listens to their pleas and always endeavors to dry their tears,” he says in the December 13 ACN report.

The Priest’s wish for Christmas is for many people to feel the desire to help the refugees in Pulka, and for them to regain their physical, spiritual and mental health.

He says, in reference to the refugees, “They long for peace in their lives, for peace to return to their homes. Our desire is a very simple one; we simply want to live a normal life and return to the life we had before.”

ACN reports that the foundation is seeking help for a range of projects to help the “uprooted” people of Pulka, who include around 14,000 Catholics.

The envisioned ACN projects include a borehole to provide water for the refugees, the rebuilding of the St. Paul’s Parish house in Pulka, so that Fr. Christopher can return to live there, and help 23 Catechists who are working among the refugees from Pulka, both in Nigeria and in Cameroon.