"At first I was helping vulnerable children, but when the crisis of violence came to Jos, I started helping widows and orphans," recalls Dali, who founded and runs the Centre for Caring, Empowerment and Peace Initiatives (CCEPI) in northeast Nigeria. "Later, when Boko Haram came, we started working with the whole range of displaced people. We have registered 380,000 households whom we have helped with something," says Dali, who herself was forced to flee with her family when Boko Haram militants took over the town of Michika, Adamawa State in 2014.
As the situation in the northern states of Nigeria only worsened, the CCEPI relief work grew gradually, resulting in helping 1 million individuals since 2008. "In that big, huge congregation, there were widows and orphans again, and I started to focus on the most vulnerable," says Dali. A lot of people coming from Boko Haram insurgencies were neglected, "the government did not care, the community rejected them" - often including even their own families. "When I started opening my arms to them – they started coming to me: some were sick, some were hungry, most of them had experienced trauma, violence, abuse."
Dali, with her colleagues at CCEPI, started to take a more detailed look in their cases, offering specific help. "Often help used to be just a handout, small and insufficient – but as I looked at the people and their stories more closely, I was able to offer the help they needed." Starting with trauma healing and providing a shelter, continuing with support in pregnancy and giving birth, support with clothing, food and housing, and moving on with training and empowering them, enrolling people into the livelihood centres – the CCEPI was and still is there to help.
"Sometimes when I am really exhausted, the thoughts of stopping this work come to my mind. But then I remember that God did not reject me, and He is not very tired of me – so how can I be tired of people? I believe that God is God of love, and He has said that we should love other people as ourselves. He came to reconcile the world," says Dali, adding that we should act as ones who help others to reconcile too.
Taking a risk for justice
Dali's CCEPI is recognized by UNHCR as the first humanitarian actor to set up a livelihood programme for internally displaced persons and returnees in the Madagali and Michika areas of Adamawa region in Nigeria. The centre took the risk of reaching areas considered inaccessible and dangerous at the peak of Boko Haram's insurgency, at a time when other non-governmental organizations could not.
"Even if you are persecuted – you should not be demoralised because of the persecution, but continue to help others," says Dali. "Immediately as we were chased away by Boko Haram, on the first day I slept, but on the second day I was among the other displaced people - registering them, gathering their stories, listening to their needs, and later starting applying to donor agencies to help them."
Dali was also amongst the first to visit the parents of the 276 Chibok girls after the mass kidnapping by Boko Haram in April 2014. Dali's husband, the Rev. Dr Samuel Dante Dali at that time was the president of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN, Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria), to which most of the kidnapped Chibok girls belonged. Located in the northern districts of the country, congregations of the EYN suffered severe attacks by Boko Haram militants, forcing up to 70% of the church members to flee and become internally displaced persons.
Courageous efforts of Rebecca Dali and the CCEPI in the reintegration of women abducted by the Boko Haram were recognized by the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation, which granted Dali its biennially conferred Humanitarian Award. "As the local communities resisted their reintegration, your negotiation skills and reconciliation efforts played an important role in their successful reintegration," states chairman of the foundation and UNHCR’s director of External Relations Anne Willem Bijleveld.
"We provided medical services and trauma healing for women returning from Boko Haram," says Rebecca Dali. If the women where pregnant, CCEPI supported them and waited until they give birth; took them to the hospital and purchased everything needed for the baby. "It is very sad, but after they gave birth, some used to say – this child is from Boko Haram," recalls Dali. Many believed those are children of "bad blood" - and that's why they had a high risk of being killed or just left neglected. "We had to be there to encourage the mothers to take care of the babies, as it was not the fault of these children – they all are wonderfully created in the image of God," says Dali.
Such encouragement usually worked very well, but the real challenge was families of these women and their husbands, who in many cases refused to accept their women returning from Boko Haram captivity. "So we had to do lobbying, going to these families and talking with them, making a lots of phone calls and arranging the meetings, involving local community leaders as well," says Dali. There were cases when it did not work, and there was a need to build houses for these women in other communities who did not know their background. In some such cases reconnection with families happened gradually – after the trauma had gone from both sides.
Dali received the award on 21 August at the United Nations in Geneva, during the annual World Humanitarian Day event aimed to raise awareness of aid work, commemorate workers who have died while in the field, and mark the day in 2003 when 22 people were killed in a bomb attack on UN offices in Iraq, including the head of mission Sergio Vierra de Mello.
Thanking supporters, thanking God
In her moving speech at the award ceremony in the fully packed Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Hall, Dali said: "I give thanks to my God who gave me courage and opportunity to serve his children - my neighbours."
Reflecting on the current recognition, Dali says she sees the award as a key to further success of CCEPI. "There are people who already have approached me with invitations to speak, partnership and donation offers for building of trauma healing clinic and a school. I finished my speech and in less than 20 minutes I met a lot of people who wanted to help. Without the award I would not be known to them – so I thank God for this opportunity!"
Dali acknowledges that support from donor agencies – Church of the Brethren USA, Christian Aid Ministries, International Rescue Committee, UNHCR – has been important motivation for her work. "You have the funding and resources to help, and you see a lot of needs and suffering of people around you – I can't just say I'm tired, it motivates me to keep on doing."
But above everything else Dali highlights the love of God and the good of her neighbour as the main drivers of her commitment: "Each minute and each second I find motivation in knowing that God is near me and protecting me. Because of Him I am doing this work."
From someone who meets the harshest violence face to face on a daily basis - these are not just words.
The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 348 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 550 million Christians in over 120 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, from the [Lutheran] Church of Norway.