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BU Cancels Study Abroad Program in Niger

Violence against Westerners fuels decision

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Niger, one of BU’s most popular study abroad programs, had to be canceled because of a recent uptick in violence against foreigners. Rachel Sillman (CAS’09) (left) and Ayesha Rabbani (CAS’09, MED’13) (above) with local children at an orphanage during the 2008 fall semester. Photo courtesy of International Programs

Last week’s brazen kidnapping and murder of two Westerners in Niger’s relatively safe capital of Niamey has led University officials to cancel its spring semester study abroad program in that country.

“We are very sorry to take this action,” Joseph Finkhouse, institutional relations director with BU’s International Programs, wrote in an emailed announcement. “The program in Niger has always been one of the true stars of BU’s programs abroad. However, the safety and well-being of our students and staff must always be our primary concern.”

On January 7, two French nationals were abducted at gunpoint from a crowded Niamey bar and restaurant popular with Westerners, including BU students. The kidnappers, described by the Associated Press as wearing turbans, dragged the men outside and fled toward the Mali border. Nigerien and French troops gave chase, but both victims were reportedly killed by their abductors. No one has claimed responsibility, but the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has carried out similar acts in the past. Niger, the largest nation in West Africa, was a French colony until 1960 and French citizens have been targeted in the past.

The January 7 abduction was the first of its kind in Niamey. The capital has been seen as relatively safe compared to the rest of the country, which has witnessed similar crimes in the remote regions and has been the subject of U.S. State Department warnings. Since the restaurant kidnapping, the U.S. Embassy has imposed strict limits on its personnel in Niamey, including a nightly curfew and a ban on all travel outside of the capital. As of Tuesday, the warnings remained in place. University officials decided on Monday that the heightened risk in Niamey was unacceptable. BU’s spring 2011 Niger program was scheduled to begin on January 20. The inaugural summer program has been scrapped too. It’s unclear when operations might resume, according to Finkhouse.

“We’d have to have pretty hard assurance from the U.S. State Department that the overall situation had become stabilized over there,” he says, “but I don’t want to speculate about specific criteria; we just don’t know what that will be. We hope this is not a trend toward violence that’s going to continue, especially for the Nigerien people.”

BU’s Niger program has been in operation for some 20 years, offering undergraduates insight into the culture, people, and history of Niger. Finkhouse describes the program as heavily experiential, with students living communally and integrating into the local culture, studying the native languages, and apprenticing with local artisans. Along with courses and fieldwork, the program also offers study trips and cultural activities, which in the past have included visits to Peace Corps volunteers’ villages, an overnight stay in a game park, a day trip to a weekly livestock market, and an outing to see the last free-roaming herd of giraffes in West Africa.

“The students who have done the program know a lot about that part of the world, want to be in that part of the world,” Finkhouse says. “They are students who have cohered best as an alumni group and look for ways, maybe through the Peace Corps or other programs, to get back there. They really develop a strong affinity for the place.”

One of those alums, Alveena Shah (CAS’11), spent the 2009 fall semester in the Niger program. She and her friends had frequented the restaurant where the abduction took place.

“The surge in violence is pretty unbelievable,” Shah says. “It’s unnerving to think that in the year since my group went Niamey could be the site of a double kidnapping and murder. The semester I went, I never felt unwelcome, or even unsafe really, anywhere in the country. A semester in Niamey is an amazing experience, but safety concerns take precedence. Still, it’s really unfortunate that the students who were going on this year’s spring trip won’t get to have that experience this semester.”

Finkhouse says because of the late timing, it’s unlikely the 15 or so Niger-bound students will be able find another study abroad program for the spring semester. International Programs will work with the Registrar and Housing to resettle them on campus and enroll them in classes.

“It was a very difficult decision to make,” he says. “Our job is to make it easy for students to study abroad. We hate to take opportunities away from them. We’re really sad to have to do it. The timing is really horrible.”

Ana Maria Duque (CAS’12) says she transferred to BU last spring because of the CAS international relations department, the African Studies Program, and the chance to travel to Niger. In anticipation of the trip, she’d moved out of her dorm and shipped everything home, including her cold weather clothing.

“I have never been to Niger and being a week and a half away and receiving the news that it was canceled is truly devastating,” Duque says. “As of now, I’m not 100 percent on going back to Boston this semester. Some of the students have decided to go back and prepare to go abroad next year and not rush things through. Some of us are exploring other options with other organizations, but there are not high chances for spring ’11. Although this is really unexpected, upsetting, and sad for the majority of us, the people in Niger are what worries me the most.”

Affected students should call 617-353-9888 for more information.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on BU Cancels Study Abroad Program in Niger

  • Chris Hawkins on 01.13.2011 at 1:29 pm

    This is sad to hear. My daughter was in Niger for a semester in Fall ’94 and returned in 99-00 as the RA for the program. She had a most rewarding experience that led to her career in post-conflict development and state-building.

    This is a sad but understandable step for BU to take.

  • Prof Susan Foster on 01.13.2011 at 2:42 pm

    What a shame....

    I’m very sorry that this program has had to be canceled, hopefully for just one semester. I visited Niger many times in the past and can understand the subtle appeal of the place for those who have spent extended time there.

    If anyone reading this is one of the now-homeless students looking for classes to take at the last minute, I have an idea for you. Although it is officially full, if any of you are interested in my 4-credit PH511 Introduction to Global Health (“Pathogens, poverty and populations”), taught Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:30-2 pm, I will see if we can accommodate you.

    Good luck in any case!
    Prof. Foster

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