GENEVA She didn't expect the enthusiasm with which she was honored. When she received the 2017 Sergio Vieira de Mello Award, which is named after the former High Commissioner for Human Rights who was killed in Iraq in 2003, it was followed by a spontaneous roar of applause. Rebecca Dali, 56, was being feted at the Palace of Nations in Geneva on Aug. 19 — World Humanitarian Day — for her work in Nigeria. At that moment, she felt she experienced a "miracle of God."

Dali runs the Center for Caring, Empowering and Peace Initiatives (CCEPI), which was created in 1989 to help Nigerian women, children and orphans. Despite the radiant smile on her face, she typically works in the shadows.

In a country devastated by violent crime perpetrated by the jihadist group Boko Haram, Dali is a glimmer of hope. The terrorist organization has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 2.6 million others. Among the victims are 276 girls from Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, who were abducted by the group in 2014. So far, the 106 girls who have been freed by Boko Haram rely on Dali.

"Through my work, I'm trying to rehabilitate them," Dali explained. "It's a real challenge because...they are often rejected by their own family, their community and even in some cases by the government."

Dali, who is generous and spontaneous, points out that some of them come back ill, others pregnant. "Even smart kids are struggling to get good grades at school. The wounds are too painful."

Victims of Boko Haram are not the CCEPI's sole priority. Dali also provides shelter and food to widows and children who lost husbands and fathers to AIDs. She strives to make families independent by giving them goats, seeds and fertilizers. She also supplies local hospitals with medication. To finance the center, she counts on support from USAID, the European Union and the International Rescue Committee.

Rebecca Dali's bold actions must be seen as an example

Dali considers the field work she does a hobby. She has not had an easy life herself. She was born on Oct. 1, 1960, the day Nigeria became independent. If she understands better than anyone else the difficulties that Boko Haram's former hostages face, it's because she's had a traumatic childhood. Her mother was 15 years old when she met her father, who was aged 45. But she was quickly rejected from her village because she had leprosy. For almost 20 years, Dali's parents were displaced from one place to another, until her mother finally got treated for her illness.

When she was five years old, Dali sold trinkets on the street to help the family make ends meet. At age 6, she was raped. When she was 8 years old, her father decided to get her married off because the family was running out of money. Dali ran away from home and kept attending school. As Anne Willem Bijleveld, president of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation, said, "Rebecca Dali's bold actions must be seen as an example".

Rebecca Dali and her team in Nigeria — Photo: Rebecca Dali/Facebook

One of Dali's driving forces is her faith. She met her husband, who was at some point president of the Brethren church, when she was 19 years old. Since then, she has drawn her strength from spirituality.

One day, while she was visiting the parents of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, she was grabbed by the jihadist group. "They asked me to say what Boko Haram was. I told them it was a group that was killing and destroying villages. They didn't like my answer and started shooting in the air. Then they asked me why I wasn't scared." They advised her not to go to Chibok, which was full of jihadists. But two days later, defying Boko Haram's warnings, she went there anyway.

For Dali, who has six children, the battle against the terrorist organization is a personal one. She lost her 18-year-old son, Timothy, to it.

Dali embodies the resistance against Boko Haram, whose name means "western education is sin." In 2012, she got her Ph.D. in ethics and philosophy at the Nigerian University of Jos. When she speaks, she's calm and humble: "We don't have the means to cope with all humanitarian needs."

If Boko Haram hears about me through the media, my life could be endangered.

She's not very optimistic about the future of Nigeria: "My country is more and more dangerous and insecurity is growing." The irony of the award she just received is that it could further jeopardize her safety in Nigeria.

"Until now, I was working in the shadows. If they hear about me through the media, my life could be endangered," she said.

But Dali has no intentions of stopping. She will carry on helping Boko Haram's victims, and split her time between Denver, U.S., where one of her brothers lives, and her native Nigeria.


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