Standing in Times Square in front of street performers dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, the two teenage girls look like typical tourists. They’re grinning and posing on their first visit to New York City.
But 17-year-old Hauwa and 18-year-old Ya Kaka didn’t come just for fun. They visited the U.S. this month to meet with members of Congress and U.N. officials, telling the story of the traumas they went through after being captured by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. They urged the U.S. to bring pressure to help free the thousands of girls and boys abducted by the militant group.
Ya Kaka was kidnapped along with her younger brother and sister. She was given to an insurgent as his wife. He and others repeatedly raped and beat her. She gave birth to a son.
Hauwa was abducted by Boko Haram members who came to her home and demanded to take her away. When her father and stepmother resisted, the militants killed them and took Hauwa.
The girls, whose last names are withheld for their safety, do not know exactly how long they were kept hostage. Ya Kaka thinks about 14 months passed before she and three other girls were able to walk away when the insurgents left camp to attack a town.
Hauwa believes she was held at least nine months. She fled shortly before giving birth to a baby girl.
Both of their babies died. The girls were living with extended family in Maiduguri near a refugee camp in November 2016 when they met Stephanie Sinclair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and founder of Too Young to Wed, a group that advocates against child marriage.
Too Young To Wed gave the girls scholarships to attend boarding school in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
At a panel on girls’ and women’s rights hosted by U.N. Women, The Working Group on Girls and the Feminist Majority Foundation, Ya Kaka and Hauwa were bundled up for New York’s 39 degree weather — much colder than what they’re used to in Nigeria.
After the panel, NPR spoke to the girls through an interpreter about their trip. The conversation is edited for length and clarity.
This is your first visit to the United States. Have you had a favorite part of the trip?
Ya Kaka: I’m really impressed by the cities I’ve seen so far.
Hauwa: The U.S. senators and representatives were really friendly, more than what I’ve found at home. Politicians at home never listened to my story.
Also, the snow! I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been taking pictures of it, and I can’t wait to show people back home. I also liked visiting the Bronx Zoo. I saw lots of animals I’ve never seen before. I liked the gorilla especially, because it behaved like a human being.
You’re a bit like celebrities on this trip. What’s that been like?
Ya Kaka: The special treatment has made me really happy. It’s given me the courage to feel I’m important. Until now, I’ve never felt that way.
Hauwa: The friendly treatment has made me happy too. In fact, it’s what’s given me the courage to tell my story whenever I’m visiting a new place on this trip.
What do you like to do for fun?
Ya Kaka: Visiting new places is fun for me!
Hauwa: Before I was connected with Too Young to Wed, I had nowhere to stay and only one set of clothes. When I walked down the street in Nigeria after escaping, sometimes boys would insult me. Then Too Young to Wed bought us brand new outfits. Now when I walk down the street in Nigeria, the boys who called me names flirt with me, and I just ignore them. I’m always happy when I get to do that.
What subjects do you like in school?
Hauwa: I’m really interested in English, geography and math. When I graduate, I want to be a lawyer.
Ya Kaka: I’m studying geography and statistics, which I think are useful subjects to learn. I also want to be a lawyer when I graduate.
Is there anything else you’d like American girls and boys to know about you?
Hauwa: American girls and boys should know we suffered a lot in the forests [with Boko Haram], but we came out. And now Americans are showing us a lot of love. We’re happy with that.
Ya Kaka: They should also know we’re young like them. We’re also growing up. We encountered a lot of trouble in our lives, but it’s all over now. They should understand that and also support us [and others who’s suffered because of Boko Haram] in whatever way they can.
On March 16, the girls boarded a plane back to Nigeria. When saying goodbye, Sinclair asked how they felt. They replied, “Happy and strong!”
Natalie Jacewicz is a freelance writer and law school student. Follow her @NatalieJacewicz.
Translation by Shehu Abubakar.