Seventeen-year-old Hauwa closes her eyes as she takes a deep breath. “I like it so much,” she says as she slowly breathes in and out. “It calms me down when I’m upset. I take 10 deep breaths, and after I’ve done it, I think of the problem again, and it’s no longer affecting me.”

Hauwa is talking about belly breathing, one of the techniques she’s learned in the International Rescue Committee’s EU-funded Safe Space. During these sessions, young girls learn mindfulness techniques to help them overcome stress or deal with negative thoughts.

Since 2014, over two million people in northeast Nigeria have been displaced due to ongoing conflict from armed groups. Just 8 percent live in official camps and receive government support; most uprooted families are in need of food, clean water, shelter, education, and health care.

Women, girls and children are most at risk among this population. Three out of 10 have experienced one or more forms of violence, negatively impacting their well-being. Many of them also miss years of school due to displacement and poverty, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

If I’m angry, once I do it, the anger goes away,” says Hauwa, talking about the mindfulness techniques she practices.
Photo: Etinosa Yvonne/IRC

The multi-country Programmatic Partnership with the EU allows girls to access spaces where they can feel safe to learn in a supportive environment. It’s here that Hauwa comes not only to practice relaxation techniques, but also to learn about her rights and opportunities and confide openly about her problems.

Hauwa appreciates the openness which the safe space provides her, and uses the lessons she’s learned there in her daily life. “When my younger brother would offend me, I’d usually send him away. But now I give him that attention, and listen to what he has to say.”

Portrait of Falmata, community facilitator with IRC from Nigeria
Falmata is passionate about giving girls the space to express themselves in a healthy and nurturing environment.
Photo: Etinosa Yvonne/IRC

Running these sessions is 23-year-old Falmata El-Mustapha, a community facilitator with the IRC. She’s well aware of the importance of these sessions for young minds and passionate about her students. “Girls in our community face a lot of challenges, such as lack of access to education, abuse, or the pressure to get married early,” she explains. “The safe spaces allow them to say whatever they want. We cannot judge them, and whatever they say here is confidential.”

She teaches students different methods, from singing traditional Hausa songs to counting to 10, that help them quell negative emotions when they find themselves in difficult situations.

Falmata and Hauwa practice belly breathing to manage negative emotions.
Falmata teaches girls like Hauwa different techniques, such as singing and deep breathing, to manage negative emotions.
Photo: Etinosa Yvonne/IRC

Outside of the safe space, Falmata talks to fellow community members about her work. “Most times, parents don’t want to sit with their children and hear them out,” she says. “I tell [the community] to allow their children the space to share their problems.”

For Hauwa, who aspires to study medicine, mindfulness techniques have taught her the virtues of patience and acceptance. “Poor people go through a lot of hardship in Nigeria,” she says, explaining why she wants to be a doctor. “I want to be able to attend to all of them, not just send them away. One should be welcoming and accepting of people in order to solve their problems.”

About European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

The International Rescue Committee partners with the European Union to provide life-saving support to people caught in conflict and disasters around the world. Our work funded by the EU through the Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) enables people to survive, recover and rebuild their lives.