On June 9, 1969, a refugee family of a young mother and six children, ages 1 to 10, 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, which was 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 Maudlyne Ihejirika, then 5 years old – now a veteran reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and an Evanston resident – her five siblings; and her mother, Angelina Ihejirika. They were reunited with husband and father Christopher Ihejirika. Mr. Ihejirika was a student at Northwestern University when the 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 Ms. Ihejirika shares the courageous story of a woman who withstood the unimaginable to protect her six children and survive a war that ended with the starvation and massacre of at least two million Biafrans.
Maudlyne Ihejirika’s 162-page “Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War,” 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 describes how the family was smuggled out of the country on the last flight to leave Biafra, piloted by the Catholic Charity organization Caritas Internationalis.
The impact and legacy of the Nigerian Biafran War, (July 1967-January 1970) still reverberates 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.
Ms. Ihejirika will be speaking at 1 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the Rotary Peace Festival in the Rotary Friendship Garden.
“Escape From Nigeria” is available on Ms. Ihejirika’s website, voiceofawoman.info.