I was born in spring of 1979. He was born in fall of 1980.
In 1989 I attended 5th grade at a good public school in Rock Island and played softball for the local park-board league. I went on vacation with my family in the summer and celebrated holidays like Christmas by playing games all day with my cousins and getting spoiled rotten with presents.
He was 9 and played soccer with his siblings and classmates in Sierra Leone, Africa. He worked with his brothers to help his mother prepare meals, visited his grandparents in a nearby village and came to love rap music.
In 1993 I was 12 and in 8th grade and attended Washington Jr. High School. I was a cheerleader for boys basketball, watched my sophomore sister play basketball for the local high school and can vividly remember that the thing I dreaded most was being seen in public in my father's rusty-old 1977 Suburban.
In 1993, rebels attacked the village where his family lived while he and his brother were away. He never saw the rest of his family again. At the age of 13, he wandered the jungle from village to village looking for safety witnessing the atrocities of a chaotic and gruesome civil war desperate to find a familiar face. When I was trying to fit in with friends in my awkward adolescence in middle school, he was conscripted into the army as a child soldier. He carried an AK-47 and bayonet and was kept so high on drugs (cocaine mixed with gunpowder) that he couldn't sleep for days. He executed prisoners, burned villages, and was shot at and injured but didn't even realize it because he was so drugged.
In 1995, I was starting my junior year of high school. With the new found independence that the age of 16 brings, I was driving my own car, cheering at football games and earning money working at Whitey's. Boyfriends, college applications and teenage drama abounded. He was 15 and had entered Benin Home, a rehabilitation center for child soldiers in Freetown, Sierra Leone...he spent a year there trying to regain his sobriety and humanity and recall the joy of his childhood.
In 1997, when I was holding my newly earned high school diploma and packing my bags for the University of Missouri, this remarkable man suddenly found the stability he came to enjoy with his new family after his rehabilitation unravelling. As I made my way to college, he made the slow and dangerous journey out of his homeland as the military coup he was caught in threatened to thrust him back to the front lines of the war.
Now for the silver lining: at age 19, as I was well on my way to starting O.T. school at MU, Ishamael Beah had made it to the United States. He finished High School and went on to Oberlin College. Now a voice for the children who are robbed of their innocence, he has written a memoir that stands as testimony to the atrocities he lived through.
This was our book club selection for November--and what a good pick it was. His memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier was hands down, the saddest book I've read in a long time. It was moving, honest, terrifying, and redemptive. I cried many times as I read it. I cried for him, what he saw, what he endured and what he put others through. As I journeyed with Ishmael through his memoir, the most striking part for me was that HE IS MY AGE. What different youths he and I have known....I also shed tears for the thousands of other children who are still living this hell today. I pray that not only will those children be helped like he was, but that somehow the world can find a way to support these societies and people in a way that ends war and brings stability and security to them.
Here he is in the U.S. with his "adopted mom", whom he met in 1996 at the UN International Children's Parliament--he was selected along with another young man who had been rehabilitated from Sierra Leone to represent his country. He is now a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee .
While not exactly a light-hearted holiday read, it's a book you shouldn't pass up.