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Frank Edomwonyi, an engineer living in Great Mills, said he’s been thinking about nearly 300 school girls who were kidnapped April 14, reportedly by a group of Islamic extremists, in his home country of Nigeria.

“Apart from the fact that it’s a human catastrophe, it’s my former country,” Edomwonyi said. “I feel sorry for them.

“I’m not in a place, physically, to do anything for them. But I continue to pray,” he said. “Our hearts are aching.”

Estimates are that at least 276 girls were taken from their boarding school, attended by Christian and Muslim students, in a remote, northern area of the country. The group’s name, Boko Haram, reportedly means Western education is forbidden.

Reports have said some of the school girls have been sold for as little as $12 and forced into marriages. Some managed to escape; others reportedly died during transport, at least two due to snakebite, according to several reports. News services, such as Reuters, have said the girls may have been smuggled into neighboring countries by the terrorist group, which the U.S. State Department says has been engaged in acts of horror in Nigeria for at least three years.

Meanwhile, parents and concerned citizens from Nigeria to the United Kingdom to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have launched protests.

Maryland has one of the world’s largest concentrations of Nigerians living outside of Nigeria. City-data.com created a list of the top 101 U.S. cities that Nigerians now call home, and at least 30 Maryland cities made the count, most in Prince George’s County and others in the Baltimore area. But Southern Maryland is home to Nigerian families, as well.

“I can’t imagine my child or my daughter being kidnapped in this way. It would be a nightmare for any parent,” said Eleazer Ekwue, a math professor living in Waldorf.

“I’m from a part of Nigeria where education is No. 1,” he said. For his own daughters, ages 9 and 23, their education is “their lives ... their progress. Their future.”

Ekwue, during an interview earlier this week, said his American colleagues and associates know he’s Nigerian. But none had asked him about the kidnappings, or how it affected him. “I feel they are not concerned,” he said. Perhaps, he said, they’re thinking, “this is not in America. This is in an undeveloped part of the world.”

“People will feel different ways. Especially about Africa,” Ekwue said. “It makes me feel bad.”

During reporting for this article, one person compared the tragedy to prostitution rings with adult participants in the United States. Some people commenting on news sites have said it’s a Nigerian problem and the United States should stay out of it.

But Toyin Olaleye, a graduate student and blogger in Baltimore, said Nigerian girls are no different than school girls in Maryland or anywhere else. She’s attended a protest in D.C., and has written about the issue.

“These are girls that just went to school,” said Olaleye, who was schooled in southern Nigeria until she was about 8.

There, she said, teachers were strict. “We went to school to learn,” she said. But the girls also spent time playing a hand game called 10-10, like Miss Mary Mack in America. They jumped rope. Neighbors were like brothers and sisters.

One person in a village might have had a television, she said. But after school, schoolmates gathered around it and spent time watching shows together, she said. “That’s what I remember. A really tight-knit community when I was young.”

But her parents were poor. She walked to school at times with torn sandals. And, electricity and water services were unpredictable, at best, she said. When her father got the opportunity to come to the United States, she said, “We couldn’t say no.”

“It’s difficult to see the country go down the drain,” said Edomwonyi, of Great Mills. Extremist groups are preying on the poor, who will do anything to make ends meet for their families, he said. “It is the people supporting them to commit the crimes that they should go after.”

Ekwue said he’s encouraged by the U.S. government’s response, sending military to help find the girls and drawing attention to the tragedy. “Other than that, I don’t know what anybody else can do,” he said. He hopes people realize that “something wrong is going on. It could happen in any other part of the world.”

Robert Jefferson knows that all too well. Jefferson, a music director and composer who has traveled internationally, also leads the Southern Maryland Gospel Choir, which holds practices at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Leonardtown.

He previously composed a work, called “A Spiritual Journey from Slavery to Emancipation.” And he’s reaching out to modern anti-slavery groups hoping to spread his message about how human trafficking and slavery is the same today as it was 150 years ago.

“This is still going on ... There are still millions of slaves,” Jefferson said. “My piece is just a small part, to put a light on it.” He hopes to perform the music and encourage dialogue about the issue in Southern Maryland.

Jefferson said if he went to people and said, “Let’s talk about the Nigerian problem, or African slavery,” they would say, “No. I don’t want to hear that.”

But, he said, “if I say I’m going to sing and play American songs and spirituals, they’ll say, ‘I love those songs.’”

Those songs were sung by Africans turned African-Americans who, like the school girls, were taken away from their families and, likely sold.

And, they didn’t sing because they were happy, he said. “They sang to keep themselves from being sad.

“Everybody can experience sorrow,” Jefferson said. Many people across many societies can relate to being put down, and they can relate to spirituals that tell the story of survival and hope.

“We’re all connected,” Jefferson said. “This is not the Nigerian problem. It’s a universal problem. It’s a mankind problem.”

nclark@somdnews.com