Bugi's goal is to return to Nigeria so that he can begin the hands-on work of aiding children in combating hunger and recruitment by ISIS.

MIAMI - Dr. Stephen Z. Bugi had been praying for a Christmas miracle, but his faith has not been swayed as the weeks have passed and he continues to seek a way back to Nigeria through his GoFundMe campaign "Rescuing Children."

Settled in Miami since September 2016 following his flight from Nigeria as a target of ISIS, he is now seeking funding to return home and begin the hands-on work of his charitable, faith-based organization, "Hope Restoration Mission."

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.

As Boko Haram's 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 Western education, Christian faith and efforts to share both with his countrymen.

In Nigeria, ISIS factions are called Boko Haram, which translates to "Western education is sin and forbidden."

Following a series of both veiled and outright threats and three bombing attempts on his life 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 for America, but he said he was 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."

Bugi's village was decimated and taken over, his father's home a specific target that was utterly razed.

However, the soft-spoken teacher holds a fierce determination and seemingly unshakable faith and has not been deterred in pursuing what he believes to be his divine purpose - saving Nigeria's children.

Escaping ISIS

Bugi's ultimate return to the Midwest has been bitter-sweet, but one he has used to further the mission he believes God has purposed him to.

To take advantage of the small window of opportunity for him to flee in 2014 and as not to raise suspicion, Bugi left behind a wife and five older children.

With his immediate family and some siblings relocated in non-Boko Haram controlled areas of Nigeria, Bugi landed in the U.S. and immediately sought asylum.

The process for asylum is a lengthy one and comes with several limitations. One significant hurdle was his inability to work for at least the first 150 days after filing, 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 soon extended to Bugi for a teaching position at his alma mater Pittsburg State University, 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."

Finding inspiration through his faith and the works of Beauford, Bugi has been settled in Miami holding various labor positions while also pulling together resources to fulfill his mission plan.

In May, he self-published a book "The Dramatic and Miraculous Escape of an Individual from ISIS (Boko Haram)," in an effort to bring more attention to the plight of his people, find his return to teaching, and winning the war against terror one mind at a time.

Now his goal is to return to Nigeria and begin the labor of building his first school and ministry center. Bugi's goal is to return by Christmas so that he can minister Hope Restoration's first open-air service marking the birth of Christ along with the birth of his mission in action back on the soil of his home country.

Hope Restoration

Bugi's Hope Restoration Mission is aimed at creating educational and faith resources for Nigerian youths to stop the tide of child-soldiers Boko Haram have been using to solidify its terrorist cells.

"What people need to understand is that this war is an ideological one. What is keeping Boko Haram alive is the great poverty and mistrust of the government in Nigeria," said Bugi. "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."

Describing the conditions for the majority of northeastern Nigerians, Bugi explained the strictest of Islamic law is enforced by Boko Haram destroying homes and schools which are judged to be in violation of Sharia Law. Meanwhile, poverty and hunger are rampant, and most view their government as both corrupt and impotent.

"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, " said Bugi. "These kids are trooping right into Boko Haram camps. They are hungry and hopeless. But once they go in they never come out."

Even against such dire conditions, Bugi sees hope and believes his escape was a clear sign to him that God had laid on his heart a higher purpose.

"If you have to change minds. You have to educate them, and we will start in the areas around where Boko Haram," said Bugi. "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."

Through Hope Restoration, Bugi plans to establish learning and faith ministries for children who are vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram and other criminal groups. By taking them off the streets, feeding and educating them his vision is that these youth will develop the skills needed to resist the scourge of terrorism. More importantly, they will share and influence their peers to work from the outside in by shifting the tide of communities surrounding Boko Haram controlled regions.

"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."

How to Help

Bugi has established a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for his return to Nigeria and the physical establishment of Hope Restoration.

Although there remains a significant risk to his life, Bugi said he believes it is time for him to return. He says he has done all he can from abroad and was also provided some surety with news of the death of one of the Boko Haram members that were actively seeking him.

Bugi's GoFundMe campaign officially launched in November 2017 and was sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control  Dec. 2, 2017. 

So far, less than $100 has been collected through the site. Yet, Bugi says he remains confident in both his mission and the community as he believes "all things are in God's hands, and God is good."

Donations can be made via GoFundMe at: https://www.gofundme.com/RESCUINGCHILDREN.

To contact Bugi directly to assist with fundraising efforts email him at zirra.bugi@gmail.com or call 1-602-762-3985.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on Dec. 4, 2017.

Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Email her at dballard@miaminewsrecord.com and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.