JRS Nigeria & PRM: Cameroonian Refugee Inspiring Hope in Northeast Nigeria

22 March 2022

Interview conducted by JRS/Nigeria 

On a typical day, 67-year-old, Maimuna Umar starts her day by performing early prayers then proceeds to get her children ready for school.  Between her 8 am and 4 pm work shift, she goes back home to prepare lunch and fetch water from a nearby well.

The mother of seven from Kumbo, Cameroon has been living in Gembu Town in Taraba State Nigeria, following an attack that left her and her seven children displaced. In a previous attack, she also lost her husband.

Gembu is one of the many towns in Sardauna Local Government Area, North-East Nigeria that is playing host to Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reports that 32,602 Cameroonian refugees were registered in Nigeria as of March 2019. Of this number, 53% are women and 51% are children.

In 2017, armed people attacked Kumbo, burning down Maimuna’s home among many others. At the time, she and her children had fled for safety into the bush only to return home the following morning to the news that her husband and many others had been killed in the attack.

Barely two weeks later, the town came under attack once again. “We thought it was the usual attacks, that they would come and do whatever they did and then leave,” narrates Maimuna. Together with her mom, children, and brothers, they managed to cross to the border town of Sabon Gari Nigeria where they lived for six months. While there, another attack claimed the lives of her brother and his son.

We thought it was the usual attacks, that they would come and do whatever they did and then leave,
Maimuna Umar

A man laughing with a woman outside.

Maimuna and her family members managed to resettle in Gembu where they have lived for the past four years.

Life in the Gembu has not been easy, particularly for Maimuna and other women, who have had to take on both parental roles. However, amidst all these challenges, Maimuna is happiest when supporting her peers.

As one of the women leaders, she attends Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Mental Health Psychosocial Support sessions four times monthly with an average of 25 women per session. Being a member of the mental health support group as well as Village and Loan Saving Association (VSLA), Maimuna secured a soft loan from the financial scheme where she bought a grinding machine for her business, strengthening her petty trade of frying beans cake to cater for her household.

She also leads part of the monthly MHPSS and VSLA meeting. Her sessions aim at helping women open up about issues such as child welfare, psychological distress, and livelihood challenges. Maimuna believes that since the community hosts people from different tribes, languages, and cultural backgrounds, it has resulted in challenges such as discrimination.

Over the years, her passion for addressing issues regarding the stigmatization of women has only grown. She supports their efforts to learn how to deal with these situations as they arise within the community.

Thanks to the enlightenment created by JRS Mental Health and Psychosocial support session as well as the psychosocial engagement provided, some women have regained their confidence. The community has accepted them  and around 15 women have embarked on various livelihood ventures.

Young women and widows in the community look up to Maimuna and many of them consider her as a role model. Maimuna often talks to them about the importance of dignity and self-respect and about different ways of contributing to the community. Resolving disputes among her people is what she likes most about her leadership role.

Maimuna has also contributed to addressing various forms of sexual harassment and/or sexual exploitation which were, at one time, highly Two women next to one another, one is standing and smiling at the camera and one is sitting down looking off to the side. prevalent in the community. She conducts regular meetings and life-skill sessions for women during Mental Health Support Group meetings where she has recently observed concrete improvements in their psychosocial wellbeing.

JRS MHPSS team members provide specialized psychological services such as individual counselling, and psychoeducation to people affected by violence and conflict in Nigeria. JRS, in partnership with the U.S Bureau of Population, Refugee, and Migration (BPRM) is changing the lives of hundreds of women like Maimuna.