To become a voice for the voiceless, a war orphan accepts the new challenge of getting through college.
What we didn’t see:
We didn’t see the seven mountains ahead of us. We didn’t see how they are always ahead, always calling us, always reminding us that there are more things to be done, dreams to be realised, joys to be re-discovered, promises made before birth to be fulfilled, beauty to be incarnated, and love embodied.
We didn’t notice how they hinted that nothing is ever finished, that struggles are never truly concluded, that sometimes we have to re-dream our lives, and that life can always be used to create more light.
We didn’t see the mountains ahead and so we didn’t sense the upheavals to come, upheavals that were in fact already in our midst, waiting to burst into light.
This is the song of the circling spirit, for all of us who never see the seven mountains of our secret destiny, who never see that beyond the chaos there can always be a new sunlight. – Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment
Salifu Kamara was 9 years old when the rebels came to his village and tore through his life. Like a hurricane possessed by some restless sickness, the (RUF) Revolutionary United Front stormed his village, slaughtered its elders, and stole its children. Salifu witnessed unspeakable horrors before being carried into the jungle where he was conscripted into combat.
“Life was a history not worth remembering”, he reflects.
He was 9 years old.
What were you doing when you were 9 years old?
Before the war, Salifu was a child in the way all little boys are: playing in the fields with his pal Edwin, gathering yams and rice with his mother, and swinging on the playgrounds of his village (Bofodia Chiefdom, 18 miles away from the district head quarter in the Northern province of Sierra Leone.) He was named after his grandfather, a powerful Chief in his village who lived to be 108. His name means “Leader”, which, ironically, also means “Peace”.
He often set aside some of his own food in order to feed hungry friends. His mother scolded, but it didn’t stop him. He could afford to be generous. He was a boy in love with promise, and the world had not yet howled at him. Looking back, Salifu says,
“Things changed in 1996 when war came to my village.”
On the other side of the world, James Kornbluh was a young urban mystic trekking in and out of the ghetto doing Violence-Prevention with inner-city teens, and working to build the The Crown Heights Coalition of Indigenous Leaders (later called the Crown Heights Mediation Center). During a period of intense conflict in NYC, the group created a safe space for Blacks and Jews to come together for dialogue, mediation and conflict training in Brooklyn.
“My ancestors, they knew suffering.”
said this son of Ukranian Jews who fled to the USA to escape the Russian Pogroms.
“Conflict, it’s a creative opportunity,”
he was fond of saying. He was the champion of any underdog who wouldn’t let a stutter shut down his voice. He loved Patrick Ewing for his grit. “Ewing, he’s a warrior”, he’d say. In his spare time, he carved wood. When I met him he was carving African faces out of felled trees in Central Park.
These two rivers would intersect many years later, but not before Civil War would shatter Sierra Leone into pieces like a bolt of lightning spitting a tree. The war, lasting from 1991-2002, would create an entire generation of orphaned children.
A Good Man Has to be Blind Before He Can See – Ben Okri
Words do not come easy for Salifu when reflecting on the horrors of his childhood.
“The war has been throughout my entire life,”he says.
In many ways, war never really ends, even after the cease fire. For Salifu, now 26, it echoes on in the soul of his body. He walks on crutches, a remnant of the challenges of the war, exacerbated by polio he contracted in the jungle. And now, as he struggles to complete his studies at American University, he faces another battle: one final tuition payment that stands between him and his dream.
The day the rebels came, they got to his friend’s village first. All but one of his friends were never to be found again. Edwin survived, and ran to warn Salifu, but too late. Salifu watched while the rebels barged in and whisked him off to the jungle, leaving the child in him huddled in the dark corner of a realm beyond reach.
He has scant memory of what happened there.
“I was forced to see things I don’t want to remember,” he says.
Several times he tried to escape, but was always caught and beaten. Despite the odds, he managed to survive.
After the war (2000), Salifu went to live on the streets of Freetown. Freetown had become an orphan village, over-run by children who’d survived the war. He became a leader in the community of homeless children, advocating for their right to gain safe lodging and medical care. He started hanging out near an Internet Cafe, where a Dutch woman took him in and taught him to connect with the world. It was there he learned that the eyes of the world were upon the situation in Sierra Leone.
Salifu started applying for conferences addressing the myriad of social problems in Africa, and found a new passion: advocating for children.
In 2004, by some strange fluke, Salifu got his first break.
He met some foreign students from who were doing summer research in Sierra Leone. Upon their recommendation, he was invited to speak at a Conference on War Orphans at Northridge University in L.A., California. His ticket was paid through the generous heart of a Sierra Leonean philanthropist named Shirley Bujama, from Freetown. Salifu says,
“She told me, ‘This is a loan to you. After you succeed in life, you must come back to help the children you are going to represent at the conference in America.’ Since that day, I have made a vow to myself, and my life journey, that my goals will be to help the disabled and the children orphaned by the war, and now the crisis of this Ebola virus.”
But it wasn’t easy. When he landed in L.A., no one was there to greet him. They didn’t think he was coming. He curled up in a ball at the airport, sinking into despair. War has a way of loitering in the mind long after it’s over, spraying graffiti all over one’s dreams. A cleaning woman found him, fed him, and took him to campus the next day.
Through the kindness of strangers, Salifu found temporary lodging until he received an invitation to speak at New Paltz College. His command of English netted him more opportunities, including an invitation to speak at the United Nations. The “war orphan” was shedding his skin and growing into his name. He’d become the Warrior for Peace.
In January 2009, Barak Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. The first son of an African to hold this office. In his inauguration address, Obama called for Americans to participate in a National Day of Service.
“I’m gonna do it”, James Kornbluh said. “I’ve been feeling this hunger to give something away. I want one young adult to show up that I can provide guidance for”.
I asked him,
“What’s that going to look like?”
“I don’t know”, he said. “I’m just putting it out there.”
The very next day, Kornbluh spied a note on the list serve for the CUNY Dispute Resolution Consortium. It was from Salifu casting his net out for support. Since arriving in the USA, he’d been granted asylum as a refugee, and was pursuing a degree.
“My dream is to get an education and give back to my people. I want to become a peacemaker in my country,” he said.
When they met, Kornbluh said,
“He was hungry, cold, and alone.”
Salifu was plagued by medical concerns. He endures constant pain, even now. He refuses a wheelchair, but manages on crutches. James took on the mission. He organized a fundraiser with his cousins Eden and Justin to get him into an apartment and start his entry into Higher Education. They helped him get a leadership scholarship at Clarke University.He did well enough that in 2011 he was able to transfer to American University. The community of support in DC has been “incredible”, continuously advocating for him in negotiating the system. Three people in Kornbluh’s network – Morgan Landy, Katherine Landy, and Andrew Sherry – went above and beyond, opening their homes to Salifu for a summer before he moved into the dorms at AU. They continue to show up as his advocates, and have spearheaded the fundraising campaign.
Despite profound challenges, Salifu has managed to get 3/4ths of the way through college. He’s Majoring in International Development and Public Policy, forecasting his aspirations.
He is currently one semester – and $32,000 short – of completing his dream. But college has not been without challenges. In some ways, he’s still navigating through a jungle with broken legs. Last academic year his GPA dipped below eligibility, and he lost his scholarship. Ever the survivor, he’s buckled down, and by the end of this summer, he’d gotten his GPA back into the eligible range. Too little, too late. The financial aid review process had passed. His dream is now in jeopardy.
“I am worried about my education”, Salifu says. “It’s my last hope. School gives me the opportunity to connect with people. It gives me a chance to make a life. I don’t see how I’m useful in the world without a degree.”
When asked what he wants to do after school, Salifu says,
“I am the Voice for the Voiceless. I have survived everything so I can tell this story for millions of people out there. So many kids were killed in my presence. Nobody can tell their story. Who was there to protect them? All they wanted was to play football. They are not here now. Nobody sees their names anymore. My friends, they all just vanished. And now, we have Ebola. We’re making another generation of orphans.
How is this possible in a world where there are so many leaders who can stand for children and protect them?
Yes. How is this possible?
“I believe I survived in order for me to tell a story that represents millions of other children around the world. I am a symbol of hope for millions of women and children in the world who have stories like mine.”
Voice for the Voiceless:
“I want to establish a project to help other kids like me: orphans, the disabled, and children with Ebola. I want to proclaim: even though war is over, we’re still missing the point. We need to protect women! We need to protect children!”
A Sense of Purpose
A dream can be the highest point of a life; action can be its purest manifestation. – Ben Okri
Despite everything, Salifu has proven to be a captivating leader. He refuses to call himself a victim. He speaks 7 languages, and has crystal clear sense of purpose:
“I want to build homes and provide education for kids. With education, thinking expands, friendships expand, you begin to make rational choices for your life. You learn new things to help you appreciate life. You can see yourself as a symbol of hope from no matter where you come.
I am dedicating my degree to help other children, give them scholarships, and help the orphans. We must empower women and children by giving them education.
When I complete my education, I will return home and become the President of Sierra Leone. I will create a system that serves the people of Sierra Leone.”
How You Can Participate in Salifu’s Vision:
The Freeing of One Vision is the Freeing of All – Ben Okri
Salifu’s focus now is on graduating. But, $32,000 stands between him and a diploma. To walk the stage in December, he needs to raise $32,763.40 for outstanding room, board and tuition costs. Any amount is welcome, but $50 from 1,000 people will do it.
To contribute to Salifu’s vision of completing his education, please visit http://www.gofundme.com/etnhpk. No amount is too small.
Maybe one day we will see the seven mountains ahead of us. Maybe one day we will see the seven mountains of our mysterious destiny. Maybe one day we will see that beyond our chaos there could always be a new sunlight, and serenity. – Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment