Ishmael Beah, born in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, was kidnapped by government troops when he was 12 and forced into their army. By age 13, government soldiers had trained him to kill or be killed by the rebel troops during a civil war that started in 1991. Beah’s family was slaughtered, his village burned, and Ismael was forced to become a boy soldier.
For two years this soft-spoken, articulate, and gentle young man fought and killed rebel troops until he was rescued by UNICEF in 1995. In 2007 Ishmael Beah told his story in a book titled, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Ishmael dedicated his book “To all the children of Sierra Leone who were robbed of their childhoods.”
The Wege Foundation sponsored Beah’s trip from New York City to Grand Rapids to be the commencement speaker for City High School’s class of 2010. Beah now works with the United Nations and sits on the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory, as well as other NGOs helping former child soldiers regain their humanity and restore their lives.
Beah, who has served on panels with President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, told the graduating seniors at Fountain Street Church that his war years taught him discipline, but not to plan for the future. Every day he thought he’d be killed, as his fellow boy soldiers were one by one. But the discipline he learned to survive helped him catch up academically for the years he missed in school.
He asked the City High seniors to realize what a privilege they’ve had to learn how to read and write. “So many people in the world want that opportunity and can’t have it.”
**Above photo – The 47 student musicians in the City High School Orchestra performed during graduation ceremonies held June 3 at Fountain Street Church. Pictured from right to left: Grant Kammer, Lauren Witvoet, Kelly Drelles, and Sarah Flinksky. Conductor Bob Ward, City High’s music teacher, is also a 30-year member of the Grand Rapids Symphony playing bass trombone. Because it’s one of the few high schools to have an orchestra, many young music students in Grand Rapids come to City High for the opportunity to play in the orchestra. City High Middle School has its own orchestra with 44 members.