Former child soldier credits his survival to the power of the human spirit
A college graduate, best-selling author and internationally recognized human-rights activist, Ishmael Beah looks like any young professional you’d pass on the street. Never would you guess he’d once been a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone.
>His story of survival, rehabilitation and the everlasting power of the human spirit comes to life in his acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Gone, which was required reading for the entire school. Culminating this year’s Cushing Institute for 21st Century Leadership Speaker Series, Beah’s presentation helped shed light on the realities of war and its aftermath.
Beah, who lost his parents and two brothers in the war, was forced to become a soldier at the age of 13. “We went from kids studying Shakespeare in school and wanting to be doctors and lawyers when we grew up, to wondering if we’d survive the next minute of our lives, and if we did, could we survive the next,” says Beah. “That was as far as we thought of our future and nothing more.”
For two years, Beah fought with other young soldiers, dodging bullets and burying friends. “War changed the relationship between adults and children. As a child, no one trusted you. You feared for your own life. Innocence became the very burden you carried.”
Rescued by UNICEF volunteers and placed in a rehabilitation facility, Beah spent the next eight months beginning his recovery process. He moved to the United States in 1998, assimilating into high school in New York. While in college, he realized many people didn’t know about his homeland or even understand the conflict. Writing his memoir helped change those perceptions and put a human context to the situation in Sierra Leone.
“Hollywood’s rendition of war is nowhere near the real thing,” says Beah. “There is no background music. You don’t have the chance to call your loved ones on the phone to say goodbye. You don’t even have time to love yourself. It’s dehumanizing. No one shows you those hard realities on the big screen. Living was as good as being dead.”
But while he faced what many would deem insurmountable challenges, Beah not only survived but learned to thrive and appreciate the world around him. “Regardless of time, age or nationality – war is destructive. But it is possible to recover. I live here among you. If I didn’t come out and tell my story, you’d never know. That’s the beauty of the human spirit.”
Despite all he’d been through, Beah, now 27, remembers the first time he cried. “It was when I graduated from college. I realized my education was the first thing in my life that no one would be able to take from me.” Beah encouraged students to appreciate their education and to use it as an opportunity to find their place in their community and in the world. He plans to continue writing and possibly attend law school and work for human rights, specifically to help children.
In a question-and-answer session following his address, one student asked if he ever returns to Sierra Leone. “A lot of bad things happened there, but it’s still my home,” he replied. “It’s the one place I can truly get a good night’s sleep. Even my body recognizes the landscape. When I am there, I am at peace.”
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