Dr. Stephen Bugi's demeanor is so confident and relaxed it is almost impossible to imagine what he has endured as a target of ISIS.
MIAMI — Dr. Stephen Bugi's presence exudes the kind of calm, authoritative ease to be found among most longtime educators. His demeanor so confident and relaxed it is almost impossible to imagine what he has endured as a target of ISIS.
In Nigeria, ISIS factions are called Boko Haram, which translates to "Western education is sin and forbidden."
Bugi, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in Technical Teacher Education from Pittsburg State (Kansas) University in the late '80s and early '90s, returned to his home country of Nigeria where he would earn his Ph.D. in the same field from Kaduna Polytechnic.
Now a resident of Miami and a member of the Sodexo team at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, his return to the Midwest has been bittersweet, but one he intends to use as a means to fulfilling a mission he believes God has purposed him to.
Becoming the Target of Extremists
As Boko Haram began its violent uprising out of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria and clashes with the government escalated, Bugi soon became a target of the extremists because of his advanced Western education, Christian faith and efforts to share both with his countrymen.
"In the northeastern part of the country there are very few Christians," said Bugi. "So, we are a kind of an endangered species in that area. This is how they know me. Also because I would make critical comments against them and condemn what they do."
Bugi recalled how a cousin moved away from his home village before he was born to settle in an area now dominated by Boko Haram.
"He moved away, and he took many wives. He had 30 children, and all of them are Muslim," said Bugi. "He tried to convert me back in 1971, but I refused. Two of his sons would join Boko Haram, and they later targeted me."
As an educator and print shop operator in Kaduna, Nigeria Bugi's refusal to convert to Islam and being a disseminator of Western knowledge and information marked him as a subversive threat to Boko Haram.
"They tried to kill me three times with bombs near my print shop in Kaduna," he says. "But all three times the bombs did not go off. They failed. I did not know this until they came for me in Michika. The name of my village is Michika."
Stepping back, Bugi describes the moment he realized he was more than just an undesirable to Boko Haram and needed to take precautions to protect his life.
"In the staff room of where I was teaching, because I was also a teacher, I went to the restroom," said Bugi. "By the time I came out, I had actually left my Bluetooth on, they had sent a video of ISIS beheading a man to my telephone."
The gruesome video prompted Bugi to begin planning an escape, and he moved all of his activities underground, hiding as best he could.
As Bugi plotted his escape and the safety of his family, an opportunity appeared by way of an invitation to speak and attend a technical conference in Chicago in the fall of 2014.
With his visa granted, Bugi contemplated a visit back to his home village of Michika before leaving to America, but he said he overwhelmed with a feeling not to do it.
"I do think it was God," said Bugi. "Exactly seven days after I left the country, Boko Haram came and captured my hometown. If I had gone as I had planned, I would have been there.
"When when they reached my village, they went straight to my house and made sure they destroyed my house and my father's house before moving on to other houses. They mentioned me, and that they sent someone to eliminate me because I was getting too close for comfort."
Bugi explained an elderly man from his village was unable to flee the incoming Boko Haram and took refuge in a corn field to wait out the invaders. While there, he overheard a conversation between the sons of Bugi's cousin who were targeting him.
"I am sad to have to say that this was family that was targeting me, but the voices were known and they said that they had sent someone three times to plant bombs and they had messed up," said Bugi.
His immediate family and some siblings are elsewhere now, finding homes in areas not controlled by Boko Haram to keep themselves safe.
Returning to America
Bugi, the week before the attack on his village boarded flights to America with little goodbyes and almost no indication that this would be more than a business trip, but when he landed in Chicago he immediately told immigration officers that he wished to seek asylum.
"They held me for 2 or 3 hours and checked on my story. Once they could identify me for certain, I was allowed to enter and begin with my application for asylum," said Bugi.
The process for asylum is a lengthy one and comes with several limitations. To take advantage of the small window of opportunity for him to flee and as not to raise suspicion, Bugi left behind a wife and five older children.
Another significant hurdle was his inability to work for at least the first 150 days after filing for asylum, which left him without a means to support himself.
"I was blessed to find Brent Beauford out of Noel, Missouri. He is an amazing man," said Bugi. "He is a man of God, and he took care of me. I was not allowed to work, and he made sure I had everything I needed while waiting to apply for work papers."
A conditional offer was extended to Bugi for a teaching position at Pittsburg State, but he did not receive his work permits in time and the school was forced to fill the role.
"I needed to have papers by November, and they arrived in December," said Bugi mournfully. "I want to teach. I am a teacher, but there was nothing I could do."
On a Mission
Finding inspiration through his faith and the works of Brent Beauford, Bugi has been settled in Miami since September 2016 working for Sodexo and laying out a mission plan.
"What people need to understand is that this war is an ideological one," said Bugi. "What is keeping Boko Haram alive is the great poverty and mistrust of the government in Nigeria.
"There is so much hunger. Children as young as 3-years-old are sent out to beg. Their families cannot care for them, and they sometimes walk as far as from here (Miami) to Joplin, begging.
"Imagine not being able to go to school and living with all of the high-level corruption in the government. You have no food and no education. These kids are trooping right into Boko Haram camps. They are hungry and hopeless. But once they go in they never come out."
Bugi went on describing the conditions for the majority of northeastern Nigerians, explaining that as the strictest of Islamic law is enforced, Sharia law, schools are razed, and hunger is rampant while most see their government and both corrupt and impotent.
Even against such dire conditions, Bugi sees hope and believes he is here and alive to implement a divinely guided plan.
"I keep hoping that world leaders would see what the real problems are, but they do not," said Bugi. "Education, food, and influence is how to fix it, but they won't fix it.
"If you have to change minds. You have to educate them, and we will start in the areas around where Boko Haram. Peers learn best from peers. If we can bring them up and educate them, they can push back that influence from the inside. They just need to learn and to be able to feed themselves and not be under the pressure of Sharia law."
Taking up the task for himself, Bugi is currently working on a book chronicling his experiences in the hopes of bringing more attention to the plight of his people. He is seeking publishing partners for the project.
Guided by his faith, Bugi is also working to get his charitable faith-based, nonprofit off the ground "Hope Restoration Mission," whose goal is to get the children who are vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram and other criminal groups off the streets by feeding and educating them so they can resist the scourge.
"This mission is to establish a society that is free from ignorance, poverty, disease, and wants," writes Bugi in the mission's vision statement. "To give hope and reasons for living to the enrollees who are the underprivileged children in our society."
Those interested in helping Bugi in building awareness and his mission charity can contact him directly at 1-620-762-3985.
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor for the Miami News-Record. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.