Written by Katherine M. Trager Friday, 22 October 2010 00:00
SUNY College at Old Westbury commenced its annual “Panther Pride Week” celebration on Wednesday, October 13. As part of the kick-off to this year’s event, the college’s First Year Experience (FYE) program invited #1 best-selling author Ishmael Beah to be its guest speaker.
Freshmen students had read Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier for FYE’s common reading program, and hundreds of students and other members of the SUNY Old Westbury community enthusiastically received Beah.
Beah was recruited as a child soldier in the early 1990s to serve in the violent civil war in the African country of Sierra Leone. He was rescued by UNICEF several years later and was adopted by a woman in New York, but not before being exposed to and forced to participate in the atrocities of war.
In discussing his reasons for writing the book, Beah recalled his early experiences in the United States and his disappointment at the widespread ignorance and lack of knowledge about his country and the plight of its citizens. He also remembered the difficulties he faced in adjusting to life in the U.S. without any written records or documents of his personal history. Writing about his past played an important role in giving him something concrete to look back on, as well as a means to educate others about his country and background.
“Most people did not really connect [to] the humanity of some of us coming from this part of the world … their impression about the African continent had been through National Geographic shows,” he explained. He described his frustration at the reactions from people when he talked about his background and the limited way in which people “categorize who you are and how you function and what you’re capable of.”
“For me, writing became a way to bring to life through images … this part of my life that most people have not heard of,” stated Beah. “When Sierra Leone began appearing in the news … a lot of people had not heard about it and the first time they did was because of the war. Their perception of Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone equals violence.”
“There was a Sierra Leone before the war,” Beah continued. “There is no way in the world that people just wake up one morning and have a civil war. There are circumstances that lead to it. If you give that human context … you cannot classify people as a hopeless group. A lot of people spoke about Sierra Leone as a hopeless place. Yes, there was violence … but it was never a hopeless place.”
Beah expressed his desire for people to understand that “during war … people do not stop living. The conditions in which they live may be difficult, but they still have families, they still love each other … all of these things continue. They [the media] called child soldiers a lost generation. People had come to believe that some of us who had gone through this violence were finished, that we could no longer function, that nothing could be done for us, that we would always be capable of violence and nothing more.”
Beah also recalled the heroism of those who did believe in the value and human potential of former child soldiers. He expressed his gratitude for the bravery of the UNICEF workers who rescued him from war, the patience of the rehabilitation workers who provided him with treatment and education and the kindness of the woman who adopted him and gave him the chance to start a new life.
It was these individuals that Beah spoke about when a student asked him after his speech, “What is your definition of being human?”
Beah smiled and thought a moment before he responded, “The first thing, I believe, is to live your life for other people, to understand that your life is possible because of others.”
Beah credits his survival to “people I consider truly human, people who said, ‘How can I use my life for the benefit of somebody else?’”
“That is why I’m standing here today,” Beah said.