By now you’ve seen the call. “Bring back our girls.”
When Michelle Obama sent out a picture of herself holding a hand-written sign with that Twitter hashtag on the day before Mother’s Day, the image was quickly re-Tweeted 46,000 times. The same day, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on television holding a similar sign. Celebrities and public figures have joined the swelling movement started and propelled by ordinary people the world over: demanding that Nigeria bring back their girls – and promising the world we won’t stand silent until they are home.
The story behind the slogan is an unlikely one.
On April 15, 2014, terrorists from the brutal Islamist separatist group Boko Haram burst into a girls’ school in the Nigerian town of Chibok and carried away over 300 children. At the time, few people seemed to care. Soldiers stationed a half hour drive away declined to intervene. Later, local authorities refused to search for the girls. It was left to local parents to follow their daughters’ kidnappers into the vast, arid Sambisa forest, where the kidnappers fled, to fruitlessly search for their daughters.
In the days after the kidnapping, 50 girls managed to escape, but the rest – 276 teens – never came home. As the weeks went by, Boko Haram terrorists continued to act with impunity, carrying out other massive deadly terror attacks in the region, and even kidnapped another eight girls on May 5.
“These girls are the poorest of the poor,” one local resident told the New York Times. A primarily Christian village, Chibok had been under siege for five years by fundamentalist Islamists, who oppose all female education. In fact, the school where the abduction took place had closed out of fear of attack, and was opened briefly only so that local girls could take their state final exams. When the terrorists released a video showing the dazed captives, clad head to toe in Islamic robes and threatening to marry them off as slaves, few of the girls’ parents could see their daughters. Chibok lacks electricity, and they had no means to watch the video.
For weeks, it seemed likely that the 276 girls being held as slaves would disappear into the same obscurity of their town, married or sold off in secret, with few ever knowing or caring of their fate. By and large the story went unreported; there was no world outcry.
Then concerned individuals started to do what they could. Over a week after the kidnappings, Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former World Bank Vice President, appeared at a literary event in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt. Taking the stage, she used the event to remind the crowd of the missing schoolgirls, leading a chant of “Bring back our daughters”.
Her words moved Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi, a lawyer watching the event on TV at home in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He tweeted the slogan to his 95 followers, changing it slightly: “I don’t have a daughter so I thought it would be better to make it girls,” he said later, hatching the phrase that soon went viral.
As “Bring back our girls” continues to gain traction around the world, some have mocked the effort. Would terrorists in Nigeria stop killing and kidnapping because they checked their Twitter account?
Sometimes just doing our part can help make even the most overwhelming goals possible.
Yet “Bring back our girls” seems to be making a real difference, putting the story front and center in the media and pressuring countries to act. France, the United States, Britain and Israel all sent military personnel to Nigeria to hunt for the missing girls. On May 14, 2014, Canada became the latest country to pledge troops as the international outcry has swelled. In Israel’s case, the envoy includes intelligence experts who can help build up a picture of where the terrorists have taken the missing girls.
Twitter was actually used for a noble cause and making a real effect.
Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon addressed the question of how to tackle seemingly huge hurdles when the means at our disposal are so small. He taught: “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
Some tasks seem so impossibly daunting that we might feel there is no point in even attempting them. But sometimes just doing our part can help make even the most overwhelming goals possible.
The story of “Bring back our girls” is inspiring. Here are four lessons we can all learn from our roles in it.
1. Empathy is the basis of action.
One of the celebrities endorsing “Bring back our girls” is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who stood up to Islamists who wanted to close her school, too, who was shot in the head. “I believe we are all like a family” Malala has said, calling the Nigerian girls her sisters.
When we get in the habit of thinking of other people as related to us, we’re more likely to be moved by their plight. Imagine this was happening to your daughter, God forbid. How would you feel? What would you do?
2. Resist cynicism.
It was easy for some to dismiss a grass-roots social media revolution as ineffectual. But luckily, tens of thousands of people were unafraid of looking foolish, sharing the “Bring back our girls” message even when the cause seemed hopeless.
Resist the temptation to become cynical; remember nothing ever came from doing nothing.
3. Enlist your community.
Remember that you don’t have to do everything alone. Try enlisting your community, tapping into its resources and strengths.
The Bring back our girls campaign relied on people coming together; we can each do the same in our own lives. Try enlisting the aid of friends and mentors to help you accomplish your own goals today.
This powerful tool is always available for us to use. We can pray for the victims and their families. In fact, we must. We are responsible for the world. When there is a calamity, we need view it as if it’s happening in our backyard. We need feel the victim’s pain, and at the very least we need to pray for their well-being.