CAMBRIDGE — News of attacks by Boko Haram were a daily occurrence when Lola Irele was working in her native Nigeria last year, and she was outraged when word spread here that the group had kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls in April.
“What is happening in Nigeria is a result of us, in Nigeria, laying back and not speaking up,” Irele, told a crowd of about 40 people at a rally Sunday on the Cambridge Common. “Nigeria is a democracy, but our government does not work for us. And the fact that our president took 18 days to respond to this shows it.”
People in the crowd, some wearing red and holding signs that read #BringBackOurGirls, the social media rallying cry of the movement to rescue the schoolgirls, gathered to talk about the kidnapping and share what they, as people living in the United States, could do to help.
“I’m not a very passionate person, but this upsets me, because we could do more,” Irele, an apprentice teacher at the Shady Hill School, said after the rally.
Carol R. Johnson, Boston’s former superintendent of schools, told the crowd that the kidnapping was an attack on education, tolerance, and open-mindedness. She encouraged people who care about the issue to work together and speak out.
“The fight will only be sustained if our voices are there to make it happen,” Johnson said.
More than 300 students were kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, in mid-April. The leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist network whose name roughly translates to “Western education is a sin,” took responsibility for the kidnapping in a 57-minute video.
“Western education should end,” Abubakar Shekau said in the video, according to the Associated Press. “Girls, you should go and get married.”
Nigerian police told the Associated Press that 53 of the students have escaped Boko Haram, but 276 are still being held.
Some of the girls may have been forced to marry their abductors, who paid $12 per bride. There have been reports that some may be in the neighboring countries of Cameroon and Chad. In his video, Shekau threatened to “sell them in the market,” the Associated Press report said.
Amnesty International estimated that about 1,500 people, more than half of them civilians, have been killed in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigeria’s security forces from January to the end of March.
On the Cambridge Common, rally organizers distributed pamphlets detailing ways in which people can help: Talk about the kidnapped students to anyone who will listen, both in person and on Twitter; sign a petition; ask elected officials to pressure Nigeria; donate to organizations like the Campaign for Female Education.
Rally organizer Vanessa E. Beary , a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said she heard about the missing students after submitting her dissertation — about using entrepreneurship to strengthen education in developing countries — early last week.
“It’s a crime, it’s an outrage,” she said. “This event in and of itself is symbolic of issues in many parts of the world, whether it’s a group of women being kidnapped or whether it’s the systematic denial of education to girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Last week she sat looking for a rally, a demonstration, a way to get involved. She wanted to attend something on Sunday, because it was Mother’s Day, and in Cambridge, because it was her community.
Finding nothing, Beary said she decided to organize one, e-mailing her adviser and anyone else she could think of.
Beary said she was bothered by things she read about the movement online, criticizing Twitter activism as passive and ineffective.
“I don’t consider this passive. I now know how to organize a rally in my own community. I’ve never done this before,” she said. “We’re collectively taking ownership [of the issue] today, and I know these conversations are going to continue.”
Mary Twieraga of Plymouth, with her daughter Mia, approached Beary when the rally was over to thank her for organizing it. “This is the only thing I wanted for Mother’s Day,” she said.