As Lydia Pogu and Joy Bishara slept in their beds on the night of April 14, 2014, terrorists were hurtling toward their boarding school in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
The girls, both teenagers in their senior year of high school, were resting after a festive evening — dinner, dancing, playing the drums, “just having fun,” Joy tells PEOPLE.
Suddenly two men burst into the school, claiming to be soldiers who would protect the girls. Frightened, the girls did as they were told, gathering into a group. Then more men arrived, firing guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great” in Arabic.) The girls recognized it as the battle cry of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has killed thousands of Nigerians in recent years in a bid to create an Islamic state and wipe out Western education from schools.
“I was thinking, ‘Am I ever going to see my mom again?’ ” says Joy.
Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 girls that night, threatening to sell them as slaves. The news rocketed around the world, sparking the viral hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls.” A few dozen girls managed to escape. In recent months, more than 100 girls have been set free as a result of government negotiations with Boko Haram, but more than 100 girls remain missing.
On the night of the attack, the terrorists torched the school, then ordered the girls to march down a dusty back road and pile into open-air trucks. Joy’s truck was so high off the ground, she recalls, she had to use a small car as step-up to get in.
As the trucks roared off into the night, the terrified girls frantically discussed jumping. Lydia recalls a friend saying it was better to take the risk than to disappear forever — right before she jumped. Lydia prayed, then followed her friend, landing hard on the ground, a searing pain in her hips as she scrambled up and headed blindly into the thick, thorny bushes, with her friend. “We ran and ran,” she says.
Joy was debating whether to jump as well. She heard a girl say it would be better to die there—at least their parents would find a corpse. She felt a surge of courage: She could do this. Then she looked down at the ground far below. “Something is like, ‘Joy, you cannot. And I’m like yes I can.’ ” She leapt, landing on her stomach in a cloud of dust from the dirt road, before catching her breath and fleeing with two of her classmates into the brush.
After that, they just kept running. Lydia and her friend were covered in blood from thorns, their clothes torn. They came upon a village where people had spent the night hiding in the bushes, fearing their homes would be burned, as Boko Haram had been there just hours before. The villagers pointed the girls toward home and told them to “run in a zigzag,” says Lydia, because it would be harder for anyone to shoot them.
Meanwhile, Joy and her two classmates—exhausted and afraid to stop, especially now in daylight—had found a road, where they encountered a man on a motorcycle. “We ask him to please take us back home. He ask, ‘Who are you?’ We were scared. We don’t want to tell,” says Joy, who ultimately confided in the man, and he took them home. Lydia and her friend lucked out as well, coming to a road and stopping a man who drove them back to Chibok.
Over the next few months, they worried that Boko Haram would come back to get them — sometimes sleeping outside where they felt it would be easier to hide. When they heard about an opportunity to finish school in America, they didn’t hesitate.
With help from a human rights group in Virginia, the Jubilee Campaign, they came to the U.S. in August 2014. After attending boarding school for two years in Virginia, they transferred last summer to the Canyonville Christian Academy, a scenic boarding school in Oregon surrounded by soaring redwoods and pines. “They kept our tutors busy and worked nonstop,” says Doug Wead, president of the academy. “When they encountered scary new challenges, they kept jumping off that truck.”
During her emotional graduation speech, Joy said, “I forgive the people who hurt me. I have nothing against them. I am praying for the return of my classmates to their parents.”