Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2011 Issue »

    Youth Voices: My Great Migration from Sierra Leone

    Anonymous, International High School at Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York
    HER Fall 2011 SmThe year was 1999. That’s when I first experienced the horrors of war. As a young boy growing up, I learned that war was detrimental to society, and that has changed who I am today. The war began in 1991 by the Revolution United Front (RUF). The civil war began because of diamonds. The RUF wanted to control the diamond mines in the Kono district and the government wouldn’t let them, and so they began an eleven-year conflict. During the war, tens of thousands of people died, and many more millions became homeless.

    Before the war, everything in my little village was peaceful. Every morning, farmers went to their rice fields and vegetable farms; traders went to trade by selling rice and vegetables; diamond miners went to mine diamonds in deep, dangerous holes; and mothers multitasked, taking care of the house and young children. I really enjoyed life in my little village, and the people cared for each other. I spent my childhood climbing trees, fishing, swimming, and playing soccer with my friends. In my village, the young showed respect to the elderly, and every elder in the village had the right to beat any child if he or she misbehaved. Life in my village was like a rhythm. At twilight every trader, farmer, or diamond miner came back home for family dinner. At 8:00 p.m. everyone was in their mud brick houses with their families. At this time, nature took over; birds, insects, and other earthly creatures took over the night. It was truly an amazing place to be.

    One day I was playing with my friends when we saw people passing by and asking for food, water, and help. I didn’t know what was going on, so I ran home. When I arrived, I saw worry on my father’s face. My whole family sat on the verandah and watched more people passing through our yard, bleeding and screaming for help. At 2:00 a.m., when everyone was sleeping, I heard a loud noise. At first nobody woke up, but then I heard it again. This time it was very loud because it was closer to our house. My father woke up and shouted at us to stop making that loud noise, for us not to wake our neighbors. I said, “That’s not us.” At the time I was wide awake from the noise. “We didn’t make that noise; we were sleeping the whole time.” “Then who,” said my father, “is making that loud noise?”

    My father went outside to find out what was making that noise. We heard it again for the third time. He grew extremely worried for his four wives and children, most of whom were adults. My dad told me and my other younger half-siblings to hide under the beds. I went under the bed, but I was still able to hear voices in the living room. The gunshots were getting closer to our house, and I could still hear children crying and people screaming for their children outside. A few minutes later, I heard someone knocking at the door. My dad got up and opened the door. To my astonishment, I heard the voice of a young boy. I learned later on from my dad that the boy was twelve years old and had an AK-47 weapon slung over his shoulder. He asked my father to kneel down because he feared that my father was going to take his gun and probably use it against him.

    The boy was extremely thin and pale, according to my father. His clothes were torn apart, and he had no shoes. I heard him ask my father for food, money, shoes, and clothes. My dad didn’t hesitate at his request; he quickly packed up some clothes, food, and a pair of shoes and gave the boy some money.

    That was my first experience of fear. I did not fully know what was going on, but I knew something was wrong. Growing up, I was always told to respect my elders, and what was going on in my living room didn’t feel right. Why would a kid almost my age ask his elder to kneel down? In my culture, this is taboo. Children are always taught to respect elders, because then you grow up with a lot of blessings. The boy left, taking the money, shoes, food, and clothes.

    Soon after the boy left, my dad announced that we must leave right away. He was shaking, and he didn’t look happy. We didn’t have time to pack our things; we walked out with the clothes and shoes we had on. We had no money for transportation or food. As we walked outside, I saw houses in flames; it was like hell on earth. As we were running for our lives, I saw others who had lost theirs. I saw a man lying on the sidewalk covered in blood. That was my first time seeing so much bloodshed. In my culture, young children are not allowed to witness the burial process because elders fear that it may leave a scar on our minds. I was also afraid to see the dead because I feared that I might die if I did. So seeing this dead person for the first time made me cry, and I began trembling.

    As we moved far away from my village, I looked back and saw it going down in flames. Smoke took over. We walked from my village to a nearby camp in Guinea. Before arriving at the camp, we suffered hunger, disease, and rough weather conditions. We arrived at the camp sick, malnourished, and homeless.

    As soon as we arrived at the camp, my dad took us to the United Nations (UN), and we asked for help. The UN took good care of us. They gave us food, medical treatment, and shelter. We shared shelter with fifteen other families in barracks built for refugees. We slept on the floor in clothes that the other families were kind enough to share with us. It was cold, noisy, dirty, and crowded. Being in a new town and seeing new and angry faces was all unfamiliar to me. I saw people whose bodies had been dismembered; some were children and some were adults. My family and I were fortunate enough to have all our body parts intact. Living in camp was really difficult. The food tasted nothing like what I was used to having back in my village.

    At age nine, I started school for the first time in my life. I knew what school was, but I had never thought of attending, and neither had my parents. I started school in third grade because the teachers said I was too old for first grade. I was an absolute neophyte when it came to school. My first day in class was a complete disaster. I was both afraid and diffident. I sat all the way in the back because I feared that the teacher would pick on me and that I would not be able to answer his questions. I didn’t know a single word in English, and I didn’t know how to read, write, or spell. I remember having one book and a pen. I spent the first few weeks all by myself in school. I had no friends.

    My teacher, Mr. Kabo, noticed that I was struggling with writing, reading, and spelling, and so he offered to help. I spent my time each day after school with him. He first taught me in Krio how to write and then how to read and finally how to spell. He translated English words into Krio. After spending a month and a half with him, I learned enough to do things on my own. Every day after school I would go home, do my homework, and read textbooks given to us by the UN. I realized that I had to make up three years of schooling that I had missed, and so I spent my days studying. I passed the third grade. I was very happy, but my parents weren’t as excited for me as my teacher was. I figure maybe it was because they never went to school and they didn’t know the importance of education. I moved up to fourth grade prepared—maybe even more prepared than my peers. Unfortunately, I only had two years of schooling at the camp, because we moved again in 2003, back to my once-familiar and now-unrecognizable village.

    The village had been destroyed. Houses that I had once known and spent time in when I was little no longer existed. Some families had already begun building and clearing the land again for farming. Our house was unrecognizable. There was no roof, and grass grew everywhere. We were once again homeless. Luckily, some of our village neighbors had finished building their houses, and they were willing to let us stay in their homes until we finished building. With the help of four wives and fifteen children, my father built the house faster. It wasn’t suitable for living, yet we managed, and over time we improved it.

    I began school again, and this time I was not an alien in the school community. I knew what I was doing and how to do it. I started fifth grade in my village and ended up finishing the year in the capital city, Freetown, living with my older brother, Abdulia Bah, who is sixteen years my senior. I finished fifth grade and moved up to sixth grade. Halfway through sixth grade, I entered a history competition at my school. A Christian missionary church in the U.S. sponsored the competition; the first-place winner would go to the U.S. I took the competition seriously and studied day and night, memorizing facts about my country. One thing that inspired me the most was the idea of going to America and continuing my education there.

    In my mind, students in America are nurtured and given the best education in the world. Teachers provide a lot of support, and there are a lot of technological tools that aid students’ learning. I dreamt about having all this if I went to America. I told myself that if I got to America I would work hard to get a scholarship for college. I learned a lot about America from movies and music videos, which is where I first saw how the American culture is portrayed. I remember seeing Love Don’t Cost a Thing, with Nick Canon. After the movie, I said to myself, Maybe that’s what my life is going to be like in America. Also, my older brother, Abdulia, constantly talked about America and some of his friends who live there. He always said his friends are rich because they went to America. He also encouraged me to study hard so I could save the family from poverty.

    Once I moved to Freetown, I knew that if I stayed in my country, the probability of my going to college was very low and that the chance of my getting a successful job after college was even lower. My older brother was already getting tired of paying my school fees. I feared that if I didn’t do well in this competition, my chances of succeeding in my country were very slim. With this in mind, I grew restless studying.

    The day of the competition came, and I was more prepared than ever before. At the end of the competition, the sponsors called the third-place winner first, and then the second-place winner. A few minutes later, I heard my name called. I felt like someone had lit a fire under me. I jumped up so high I almost touched the ceiling.

    I waited one year for my visa applications to go through immigration. When my papers were finally processed, I was really happy and scared at the same time; happy because I knew I would be able to make something of myself in America if I worked hard, whereas in my country it is impossible; scared because I knew that I was going all by myself, without my family, to a whole new world.

    I think I was fourteen years old when I came to America. I didn’t know how old I was until I started high school. In my culture we don’t celebrate birthdays; there is no Fulani word for happy birthday. Only a few know when they were born because most people are born at home by a traditional doctor and have no one to record their birth. Although I was born in a hospital, I still was not certain of the exact date of my birth. I left for the U.S. in October of 2006. It was a sad moment for me to leave my family, friends, and a country I had known so well. I remember talking on the phone with my mother and father. They said, “Don’t be afraid, everything is going to be okay, and don’t forget about us.” I felt tears settling in my eyes, and then I heard my mother crying before ending the call.

    I arrived at the airport and boarded the plane for America. It was my first time ever traveling on a plane or even seeing a plane up close. I was really afraid to get in. I feared that something bad would happen to the plane. The plane took off, and I slept through the flight. This helped me overcome my fear of flying.

    I got to America knowing very little English, because in my home country teachers teach mostly in the common language we speak, which is Krio. The transition was really difficult. When I arrived, it felt like I was on a different planet. I had no friends, and the people I stayed with couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t find anyone with whom I could communicate or connect. When I was in Sierra Leone, I never thought I would find any hardship in America. I thought as soon as I arrived I would adapt to the culture, because the movies I saw portrayed the American culture as easy to adapt to.

    I first stayed with a white family in Farmington, Connecticut. I was trying to grow accustomed to the American lifestyle. I read books and made friends who spoke English, and over time my English speaking and writing improved. It took me a while to get used to the food. I remember one night when they bought me pizza and I couldn’t eat it because it was tasteless in my mouth. I was used to rice and traditional sauces. It was very difficult finding African food or African people to talk to. It was cold and crowded, and I saw very tall buildings for the first time. These are things that are not seen in my country.

    In 2007, I moved to New York and started school in the ninth grade. I first lived with four African guys. I was afraid at first because I knew nothing of how teachers taught students, and I was still struggling with the English language. When I first started high school, I began participating in many extracurricular programs, such as the Opportunity Network (a career and college prep program) and the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) at Barnard College. I also joined my school’s debate team. These three activities played a vital role in enhancing my English speaking and writing. The Opportunity Network taught me everything there is to know about professionalism. They helped me apply to college and get a full scholarship. They helped me integrate myself into American culture by connecting me with American teenagers and involving me in teen activities, such as movies, parties, and picnics. Through the debate team, I learned how to read complex documents and make persuasive arguments. This improved my writing and speaking skills. It also helped me make a lot of friends. I became a great asset to these communities because I was able to bring my unique experience of war and my cultural background to all these activities.

    I worked assiduously to catch up with my peers academically and maintained an A average, just as I had done when I attended school in the refugee camp. I spent a lot of time reading books and writing just for fun. I also watched teen shows on TV to improve my speaking. During school hours, I asked teachers for help with grammar and speaking. After school, the first thing I did when I got home was rest for a while and then do my homework and read until I went to sleep. In my freshman year, I kept myself really busy. I did a lot of things outside of school, such as taking English classes at Brooklyn College, playing soccer for pleasure, and hanging out with friends. Through soccer I was able to make friends outside of an academic setting, friends that kept my mind from missing home.

    Lacking friends at first made me feel like I was going crazy. Before starting school, I couldn’t even go to the grocery store because I was too shy to speak. At some point, students made fun of my accent. Once I remember getting into an argument with a boy from a different school. He told me to go back to where I came from. He then began throwing all sorts of negative stereotypes at me about Africa, AIDS, malaria, and poverty. I couldn’t insult him back because I had nothing to say to him.

    Also, in the summer of 2008, I won a scholarship to go to a summer debate camp in Washington State. Most of the students there didn’t want to partner with me because of my poor English. They were afraid that if they did they would lose the tournament. For the first week it was hard making friends. I spent my time alone, going over complex documents about ending child soldiers and poverty in Africa. I was able to convince some of the other students to put me on their team by showing them how well prepared I was.

    Regardless of all these struggles, I never gave up trying, and my school never gave up pushing me forward. Teachers and counselors at my high school helped me apply to good programs that helped me today go to college with a full scholarship. The STEP program challenged me with advanced classes for college, while the Opportunity Network provided me with prestigious internships in medical schools, such as Mt. Sinai Hospital and Columbia University.

    My ambition for the future is to become a doctor. It all began one day when I visited a hospital in my village. I visited the hospital at age twelve because I had a severe stomachache caused by a waterborne disease. I was fascinated by how the doctors treated their patients and the way they treated me. I was amazed to see pictures of the human anatomy all over the hospital. I looked at the pictures and made connections to what I saw on my own body. It was then that I first knew that I wanted to become a professional in this field. My experiences of war also led me to want to be a doctor, so that I will be able to help people who are affected by war or accidents either in Sierra Leone or elsewhere around the globe. What I saw was not normal; the war in Sierra Leone left people heartbroken, poor, and dismembered. Because of that, I have made up my mind to help those in need.

    Going to college will be the greatest accomplishment of all, because I will be the first in my whole family to actually complete high school. Who knew an immigrant from Sierra Leone who has undergone so many challenges in life would end up turning all these obstacles into opportunities? I look forward to what the future will bring after college. I have traveled a long distance to reach where I am today, but in many ways, my journey is just beginning.

    Click here to purchase this article.

    Click here to purchase this special issue.

  2. Share

    Fall 2011 Issue


    Immigration, Youth, and Education
    Editors’ Introduction
    Soojin S. Oh and North Cooc
    The Power of Context
    State-Level Policies and Politics and the Educational Performance of the Children of Immigrants in the United States
    Alexandra Filindra, David Blanding, and Cynthia Garcia Coll
    Growing Up in the Shadows
    The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status
    Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco
    “Because We Feel the Pressure and We Also Feel the Support”
    Examining the Educational Success of Undocumented Immigrant Latina/o Students
    Things I’ll Never Say
    Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States
    Undocumented to Hyperdocumented
    A Jornada of Protection, Papers, and PhD Status
    Whose Deficit Is This Anyhow?
    Exploring Counter-Stories of Somali Bantu Refugees’ Experiences in “Doing School”
    Toward a Pedagogy of Acompañamiento
    Mexican Migrant Youth Writing from the Underside of Modernity
    Elementary Forms of Cosmopolitanism
    Blood, Birth, and Bodies in Immigrant New York City
    Maria Kromidas

    Book Notes

    Immigrants Raising Citizens
    Hirokazu Yoshikawa

    Balancing Acts
    Natasha K. Warikoo

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.