Elijah Simon’s dedication to humanitarian efforts began in 2013 during the height of the Boko Haram crisis in Maiduguri, prompting his family to seek safety in Chibok Local Government Area within Borno State.
In this period, he became aware of the social challenges within the Chibok communities. Witnessing the vulnerability of some of his relatives to these issues deeply troubled Simon, motivating him to engage and advocate for positive change within the community proactively.
“I found out that some of them are into drug abuse, and I began talking to them daily during football games and other recreational activities,” Simon said.
Despite the challenges and effort required, he persisted until they significantly reduced their involvement in harmful activities. “This transformation encouraged me to initiate conversations about meaningful topics like community development,” he reflected.
Following Simon and his family’s return to Maiduguri, he wholeheartedly immersed himself in various humanitarian initiatives throughout Borno State.
Actualising his dreams
From 2015 to 2017, Simon was privileged to work on a project implemented by Child Health and Development International in collaboration with Save the Children International or SCI.
Through the project, Simon engaged with Internally Displaced Children facing the trauma of the Boko Haram crisis. “Our work involves giving them psychosocial support,” he said.
In 2019, such interventions led him to realise his dreams of structuring a youth-led organisation named Yerwa Youth Initiative.
“Apart from my experiences from that project, I also read a book titled The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, and it has played a key role in building my passion for humanitarian work. It sparked a desire in me to make an impact in my community, particularly touching the lives of children. So I moved on to start the organisation.” Simon told Prime Progress.
The Yerwa Youth Initiative is a non-profit organisation committed to improving children’s mental health and well-being. It was fully registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission or CAC in March 2023.
In August 2023, through collaborations with other Community-Based Organisations, Simon led a Mental Health Summer School project to build self-esteem among children who survived the Boko Haram conflict.
When Simon interacted with the children of the displaced persons who stayed back in Maiduguri after the Borno State Government closed their camps in 2022, he noticed that they needed to be trained in managing mental illnesses.
“They fight a lot and get angry easily. But then, despite how they fight, they don’t mingle around or be open to people. I felt they were going through some traumatic experiences. So I saw the need to make them resilient to these traumas,” Simon shared.
Since most children were already enrolled in schools, the project targeted those in secondary schools because Simon and his team realised that when children of their ages become mentally sound, they can function well and ignite positive change in their communities.
Sixteen students from 3 secondary schools within Maiduguri, the Borno State Capital, were selected to participate in the project. The students who gathered in a classroom were equipped with knowledge of mental health, identity crisis, anxiety management, and trauma resilience.
The students are expected to partake in step-down projects by establishing Mental Health Clubs in their schools, where mentorship sessions will be held with other students. They will also forward the project to their immediate communities and impact those children who aren’t in school.
A facilitator in one of the training sessions, Hassana Danyerwa, revealed her excitement about seeing the children learn how to seek help when battling mental illnesses.
The training helps them understand that it’s not a weakness to experience a mental illness,” she said.
Simon added, “We received feedback from both the students’ parents and teachers that it was impactful to them. The students have now built self-confidence and are excellently passing the knowledge to their schools and communities. We could see they are bold enough to speak as they continue to harness their public speaking skills.”
Before the training, Fatima Baba Lawan, a student from Kauna Private School, perceived mental illness as a spiritual attack. But she got a mind shift and is now utilising the knowledge to help other children in her community know better.
As she moves towards building a Mental Health Club in her school, Lawan is also counselling the people in her community to seek help whenever they experience negative moods.
“When we are stressed and start getting angry easily, we should get a sound sleep and always seek the help of an expert” Lawan stressed.
The project was an eye-opening experience for Hauwa Mari Sambo, who learned emotional management and pledged not to fight with other children again. “I have also learned how to cope with stress and behave around people,” said the 16-year-old student at Hadiza Memorial School.
Sambo has already organised a team to help implement the Mental Health Club in her school.
Limitations and the way forward
Lack of adequate resources poses a limitation in carrying out the project effectively. At the same time, the venue for the training wasn’t conducive enough. Regardless, Simon admitted that the project’s aim had been achieved, and they also learned from their mistakes.
“We will put effort into avoiding such shortcomings in the next project,” he said.
While being dedicated to the organisation’s future, Simon hopes to engage more schools and even students from tertiary institutions.
“The goal is to improve their mental health and well-being and also make them become advocates of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he expressed.