It was a typically warm day in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. The temperature soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) when I sat in a makeshift tent in the town of Ngarannam in October last year.
The occasion was special: as many as 3,000 people returned to their city after seven years of living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Maiduguri, 50 km away. They had fled their city when it was reduced to ashes by the armed group Boko Haram.
Among them was Dana Adam, a widower who lost her husband to a cholera outbreak in the IDP camp and who is now the sole breadwinner for her three children.
Adam is one of millions for whom the conflict has had catastrophic consequences. But there is now some hope. Like the others, she now has a new home in a rebuilt community with a school and police station, market stalls, solar street lights and wells commissioned by the Borno state government, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and partners as part of a joint initiative to rebuild the Lake Chad region.
For thousands, including Adam and her children, it’s a chance for a start, a chance to get back what was taken from them: their memories, a sense of belonging, and their dignity.
But when I took the stage to give the welcome speech, I was overwhelmed with mixed feelings. One of satisfaction at what we have achieved together, but also my own reawakened memories of loss and incompleteness.
I was forced to leave my childhood home in Somalia when I was only three years old. Political repression in Somalia in the early 1980s forced my family to flee and move more than 300 miles to the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi.
While I have little recollection of the events or circumstances that brought us to Kenya, I do know that they are the same ones that would later turn into the full-blown conflict and political instability that persists to this day. It deprives me and millions of other Somalis of the opportunity to renew and reconnect with a long and broken relationship with home.
Ngarannam shows that an alternative, better future is possible for those displaced by violence, as my family once was.
It is a prototype community and one of eight areas we are developing through the Regional Stabilization Facility in the Lake Chad region in the four conflict-affected countries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The idea is not just to restore the destroyed buildings and infrastructure, but to create a sense of pride and belonging, dignity and independence.
Being involved in a project that helps communities begin to heal the psychological scars of displacement has been a cathartic experience for me.
When designing and reconstructing Ngarannam, we wanted to ensure that the community played a key role in rebuilding their devastated city. A team of Nigerian creatives led by female Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo was brought on board.
They made sure that the ideas and needs of Adam and other returnees like them were central to the design. Because to return home after fleeing violence and destruction, you need more than rebuilt physical infrastructure. A sense of security and new ways to make a living are also critical.
For the families returning to Ngarannam, this meant the challenging and overwhelming process of starting all over again. So the roadmap for the city’s revival also focused on helping families build sustainable sources of income. That includes resources such as grants and training to start businesses; the construction of shops for merchants; and livestock for shepherds. The idea: helping the community, including women, not only restart their lives, but do so with pride.
Rediscovering self-reliance after years of receiving handouts in displaced persons camps would never be easy. But despite these challenges, many in Ngarannam have now successfully made the transition. Determination is overcoming the fear of starting over. Adam and women like her rejoiced to return home and regain their lives and livelihoods.
“Now we are back in our village and living in peace,” said Adam, “that alone is an achievement for me”.
As the UN collectively continues to support and find sustainable solutions for displaced people, we are guided by the advice of the UN Secretary General agenda for action on internal displacement. This reminds us all of our collective obligation to support the voluntary and dignified return of displaced persons to their places of origin.
Welcoming the people of Ngarannam into their homes gave me a great sense of pride. It is my hope that one day I too can walk freely in my hometown with the joy and promise I saw in the eyes of the people of Ngarannam.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.