In the end Deborah stepped on a plane in Nigeria and stepped off in the United States. Twice refused a visitor’s visa, she received a rare reprieve: U.S. consular officers in Nigeria at the last minute and with little fanfare—they just asked for her passport—granted U.S. passage to the 16-year-old Nigerian, a victim of terrorism.
If you read about Deborah Wakai Peter here earlier this summer (“A battle of wills and ideas,” June 15), you know her story: Boko Haram militants forced the 14-year-old Deborah to watch as they shot and killed her father then brother, and then the terrorists tied her between the two dead bodies. She remained there all night, terrified the gunmen would return. Tuesday’s Children, a U.S. group working since 9/11 with thousands of children who’ve lost loved ones to terrorism, invited Deborah to attend a summer camp in Pennsylvania. The U.S. embassy said no, fearing that Deborah would not return to Nigeria.
It’s rare for U.S. officials to overturn a visa denial. But after two additional requests, that’s what happened. Her attorney, Ann Buwalda, executive director of the Jubilee Campaign in Washington, told me the reversal “resulted from an overwhelming amount of interest expressed by members of Congress.”
Deborah and I talked via Skype as she sat on the sofa of her host family’s home. At first hesitant, she warmed as we talked about her time in America. She was with teenagers who had lost parents, she said, but “fun” best described camp. They met in small groups in the morning then played games like Ninja Destruction in the afternoon. Her favorite American food—she smiled broadly and closed her eyes as she told me—is “club sandwich.” She made friends from around the world, including Algeria, a country she’d never heard of. She says she will return to her own country knowing more about “leaving everything to God.”
Returning to Nigeria is a sober prospect. Deborah agreed to recount what happened on the night of Dec. 22, 2011. She speaks in a rush of words, unmindful of tears that gather and glisten on her dark cheeks.
When three men knocked on the door of her home in northern Nigeria’s Borno State, Deborah answered. Her father Peter Wakai, a local pastor, was in the shower. Her brother Caleb was home. Her mother Hadiza had traveled to Lagos, so was far away. As prominent Christians in an area that’s home base to Boko Haram, the family had been attacked before, and Deborah says she recognized one of the men. They asked for her father, dragged him out and shot him. When Caleb tried to stop them, they shot and killed him also. “Why turn to Christianity?” the attackers asked the family over and over. Deborah tried to run, but the men forced her between the bodies of her father and brother. “I was shouting and shouting, but nobody could hear me,” she said.
The next morning security forces, summoned by neighbors, arrived and freed her. They pursued the attackers and were successful in capturing at least one of them. When her mother returned, the two fled to Abuja, the capital, where they live now.
But the danger hasn’t ended. Hadiza receives text messages and phone calls from militants. “They tell her she should be ready, and say they will come for her to kill her too,” said Deborah. Even now, today, I ask? Even while I am here, Deborah said. Having spared Deborah, the militants now say they made a mistake: Hadiza is a converted Muslim, which makes both her and her daughter apostates to be killed.
Why do we Americans persistently underestimate the evil that men do, and the evil of Islamic terrorism? We who lived through its destruction in lower Manhattan now watch as it turns the streets of Cairo into a fiery hell. In parts of Syria Christians dare not leave their homes. The terrorists’ dark resolve, to paraphrase Shakespeare, comes hot from hell and slips the dogs of war until carrion men are groaning for burial. It shoots pastors at point-blank range, leaving their children to watch and suffer. After that, it hunts child and mother, not content with the hundreds who have been slaughtered in between.
Not surprisingly, when Deborah prays she asks, “Lord, give us good dreams tonight.”
Debi’s visit to the United States was the climax of a long battle as reported in WORLD in June. But here she was finally in America for 19 days! My kids had met Debi when they traveled with me to Africa last year. They had also prayed a lot for her and sent stuff over on my prior visits. So they were as excited as I was when she came.
Debi had never been to McDonald’s before she came to America, and she had never been to the dentist, though she is 16 (I know some kids think she is so lucky but that is not the point here). She got stuck filling the forms, what to say for her dad’s date of birth. I took the forms from her, inserted my name as guardian, hopefully avoiding a trauma trigger. Pastor Peter, her dad, was born the same year as I.
At the dentist’s office everyone remarked how beautiful she was. “Is she your niece?” they asked. I struggled to find the right words. “Orphan” is a new title for Deborah. She doesn’t hear it often and hasn’t gotten used to it.
I wanted to return the back-to-school jeans that are too tight for my daughter. We suggest that Debi try them on. They are a perfect fit. She is twice my daughter’s age but so skinny she fits into my daughter’s clothes.
I was deeply saddened when I learned one of my kids had been mean to Debi and had to be disciplined. “Do you know what happened to Debi?” I asked. “How would you feel if terrorists killed me and your brother and left you all alone, then people who say they are your friends are mean to you?”
One night we asked Deborah to pray during devotions. She said, “Lord, give us good dreams tonight.” Really? Seriously? Who prays for “good dreams”? A child who watched Islamists invade her home and kill her dad right in front of her and then kill her 13-year-old brother in spite of her pleas. A girl who still has nightmares from being tied to their bodies and left there all night.
On another night we ask Deborah to pick a song during devotions. She picks a classical hymn, “… and when we call Him Savior, and when we call Him savior and when we call Him Savior then we call Him by his name.” Deep meaning for someone who was the sole survivor of her family that horrible Christmastime.