Photograph — UNHCR

A Nigerian, Zannah Mustapha, has been named the 2017 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award. Mustapha is the founder of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, a school that provides free Islamic-based education to children orphaned by the insurgency.

The school also provides free meals, uniforms and health care to its pupils, all provisions made by the International Committee of the Red Cross after the 57-year-old lawyer reached out to them. But even more significantly, the school acts as a bridge of reconciliation between both sides of the conflict as it admits children of soldiers and government officials killed by Boko Haram, as well as those of Boko Haram killed by the state.

However, the establishment of a school in the midst of the raging conflict with Boko Haram is not all there is to Mustapha. On Sunday, May 7, 2017, Nigeria celebrated the release of 82 kidnapped Chibok girls; Mustapha was the man who actually brokered the deal for the release of the girls.

In an article for the BBC, Adaobi Nwaubani explains that Mustapha’s position as a mediator dates back to over a decade ago. When former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a group to discuss peace when he visited Maiduguri back in President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, Mustapha was invited to be part of that intervention because of the relationship he had forged with the families of Boko Haram militants.

Afterwards, an impressed Swiss ambassador who visited Mustapha’s school in 2012 arranged for him to go to Zurich and Geneva to receive formal training as a mediator. Mustapha was at the forefront of the negotiation for the initial release of 21 Chibok girls in October 2016.

Zannah Mustapha with his students.
Credit – UNHCR

Since its inception, the number of students at the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School has increased to 540, with thousands more on the waiting list. Last year, Mustapha opened a second school a few kilometres away from the first. “This school promotes peace. It is a place where every child matters,” Mustapha told the UNHCR.

The UN Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, praises the work of Mustapha, describing it as one that is helping to foster a peaceful coexistence and rebuild communities in northeastern Nigeria. “Conflict can leave children with physical and emotional scars that are deep and lasting. It forces them from their homes, exposes them to unspeakable atrocities, and often rips apart their families. With this award, we honour his vision and service,” he said.

The Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Past recipients of the award include Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti. The 2017 ceremony will take place in Geneva, Switzerland on the 2nd of October. Mustapha will receive a commemorative medal and prize money of US$150,000 which he will use to fund a project that complements his existing work.

Zannah Mustapha is no stranger to awards and has received a good number of accolades for his work with the Future Prowess School. Last year, he was a finalist for the 2016 Robert Burns humanitarian award. He also received the 2017 Aurora Prize Modern Day Hero award, for those whose “life and actions guarantee the safe existence of others”.

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