(Chicago) — On June 9, 1969, a refugee family of a young mother and six children, ages one- to 10-years-old, disembarked at O’Hare Airport to a horde of TV and newspaper reporters and cameras. They were the rare arrival from the fledgling Biafran nation mired in brutal civil war after seceding from Nigeria. The story of how the family escaped the war — one marked by graphic footage of women and children of skin and bones and distended bellies, beamed into living rooms across the globe — filled articles still found today in Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily News archives.
That refugee family included veteran Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika, then five years old; five siblings; and her mother, Angelina Ihejirika, here to reunite with husband and father Christopher Ihejirika. Christopher was a student at Northwestern University when the horrific Nigerian Biafran war erupted, severing all communication with the outside world. And for nearly three years, neither Christopher nor Angelina knew if the other was alive or dead. It would take an Irish missionary nun to set off a chain of miracles that would lead an instructor of Christopher’s at Northwestern, his wife, and four other North Shore couples, to undertake a desperate mission to locate the family and effect their escape to the U.S.
Nearly 50 years later, award-winning journalist Maudlyne Ihejirika, a Sun-Times staffer of some 25 years, shares the untold story of the courage of a woman who withstood the unimaginable to protect her six children and survive a grizzly war ending with the starvation and massacre of at least two million Biafrans.
Her mother’s 162-page memoir, Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War (Red Sea/Africa World Press, May 2016), is Angelina’s story, based on recorded oral history, historical records, and interviews with surviving members of those five white and Jewish North Shore couples — individuals who believed one person could make a difference, in the lives of an African family they had never met.
It is a tribute to the journalist’s mother — now 89 and living in the South Loop, a mother of seven, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of one — as well as a love letter to the Americans who saved her family’s lives.
The book covers Angelina’s childhood and education in Nigeria; courtship and early married life with Christopher; how she survived vicious massacres and scavenged to feed her brood when the war broke out just after Christopher left the family to study at a university in Sierra Leone. An Irish missionary nun set off a chain of miracles, by helping Angelina smuggle a letter through two European countries to Sierra Leone, only to find Christopher no longer there. He had accepted a scholarship to study in the U.S. after the war prevented his return home.
The letter would travel around the world, finally reaching Christopher in Evanston, where the five couples would begin efforts to locate the family; involve their churches and synagogues to raise money; leverage their Congressional contacts; and negotiate with the Biafran government for the family’s freedom. The book covers Angelina’s harrowing journey, as she walked alone and on foot for three days to the warfront, to secure the precious exit visas that would allow the family to leave Nigeria; and how the family was smuggled out of the country on the last flight to leave Biafra, piloted by Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic Charity organization.
The impact and legacy of the Nigerian Biafran War, (July 1967-January 1970) still reverberates today in Africa’s most populous nation. At the end of that three-year war, the genocide of millions of Igbos in Nigeria would rank fifth on the list of the worst crimes against humanity of the 20th century. A true, compelling and heartrending story, readers will gain a new context for understanding both historical and present-day Nigeria; the current global refugee crisis triggered by the largest number of forcibly displaced people worldwide since World War II; and the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee backlash that has been growing in American political discourse.