SALT LAKE CITY — A recent graduate of Utah Valley University, Brittany Plothow, was moved to action when she learned nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria had been kidnapped by armed extremists.
"We live in the same world that these girls do. It's not something I can hear about and then not do anything about it," she said.
So Plothow set about organizing a rally to raise awareness about the mass abduction of the girls from Chibok, Nigeria on April 14. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and, in a video message, threatened to sell the girls and force them to marry. Boko Haram means "Western Education is a Sin."
The Utah rally will be conducted at 5 p.m. Saturday at the state Capitol. The event is one of dozens worldwide intended to raise awareness about the girls and urge governments worldwide to intervene on their behalf.
"We're asking anyone and everyone to come, wear red and basically spread the word about what's going on and maybe we can spark something to happen," Plothow said.
The worldwide Bring Back Our Girls movement is a creation of social media, Plothow said. She learned about the kidnapping during a Google Hangout earlier this week hosted by actress Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party nonprofit organization.
Plothow also read about the movement on actress/activist Sophia Bush's Instagram posts.
"Then we saw that the organization was asking for rallies, and we said, 'We need to do this. Utah needs to be involved in this. If someone's got to do this, we might as well do it.' So I contacted them by Facebook and said 'Hey, this is what we want to do' and they set up everything else."
Aden Batar, immigration and refugee director of Catholic Community Services Utah, said the "situation is sad," particularly because Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau first threatened more than a year ago to kidnap women and children in retaliation of arrests of his fighters.
"Nigeria is a big county, but I don't think the government is doing much to protect the children. That's what they need to do. It's a very simple thing, securing those schools, especially if the schools are vulnerable to attack," he said. "They know this issue has been going on a long time, and they didn't take the steps to protect the schools. I don't want to get into the politics, but I think that's neglect from their own government."
The girls were abducted from their dormitories, loaded into buses and trucks and transported into forested areas of northeastern Nigeria. Children kidnapped under these circumstances are "pretty much used as slaves, they (their captors) rape them repeatedly. They use them as a shield. They use them to cook for them. They end up missing their childhood life," Batar said.
As a refugee resettlement agency, Catholic Community Services assists refugees from all over the world. Some come from countries that value education for all children, and others come from cultures where girls are expected to stay home and do housework while boys go to school.
For children who are born and spend their childhoods in refugee camps, often times, education programs are either grossly inadequate or nonexistent, he said.
"If there are thousands of children in the refugee camp, then education is not a priority. Survival is the priority in the refugee camps, and people don't have enough to eat. People don't have the basics," he said.
Typically, all refugee children lag behind their peers in school when they arrive in the United States, "but we see the deficit in the girls."
The agency also resettles adult women who have not had the opportunity to go to school in their home countries or while in refugee camps.
"You will see somebody who is 50 years old that never went to school in their life and don't know how to read or write their own language. Now, they're learning the alphabet, and they go to school every single day riding the bus. They're very determined. After five years, I see them learning civics. They want to pass the citizenship test and become U.S. citizens, and they're really proud of it," he said.
Although a growing number of people worldwide have become aware of the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, Batar said, children are particularly vulnerable to terrorist acts, civil war, famine or other unrest in their nations.
"There are so many other things we're not hearing about. Children, every day, are victims of whatever conflict and whatever war is going on in the world," said Batar, who along with this wife and young family were the first Somali refugees to be resettled in Utah.
Plothow said the Bring Back Our Girls movement is significant because social media have raised mass awareness about the girls' abduction and are providing a relatively easy means for people to organize rallies across the globe to demand action.
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that the United States is preparing to deploy a team of military, law enforcement and hostage negotiators to Nigeria.
Plothow said the announcement was welcome news, although belated. "It's been almost a month now, and they're gone."
Still, Plowthow said she sees a need to turn up the pressure on governments worldwide who could aid in the girls' rescue and help prevent further abductions.
"I can't do a whole lot because I'm a 28-year-old poor college graduate working 9-5. I can't do a lot when it comes to power or money," she said. "But maybe someone who sees it somewhere or hears about it will have the power and money to do something about it. What I can do is lend my voice and maybe someone else has some other resources they can bring."
The rest is up to Utahns, she said. "Wear red, bring friends, and hopefully we'll make enough of a stink to where something will happen."
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