When Ishmael Beah strides across a stage he lights up the entire room, an irrepressible combination of intelligence and charisma. He stood at the podium at Wednesday’s Speakers Series event and his joyful presence lifted all of us a little higher. If you didn’t know his story, you might assume he is one of those lucky few who has escaped life’s burdens, so lightly does he carry the weight of all he has seen and done.
Ishmael Beah is now 35 years old. He was born in Sierra Leone in a tiny village, part of a small family and a thriving community. He grew up under the British colonial system of education and as part of an ancient storytelling tradition. He walked to fetch water, to get to school, and to visit his relatives many miles away, and he was never afraid. Innocence was celebrated, and learning was valued.
The year Ishmael turned 11, a civil war broke out in his country. When it arrived in his village, he fled with his brother into the bush. Eventually he was captured, beaten and drugged and forced to become a child soldier. He learned to kill or be killed. He witnessed the death of his family and was never able to tell them how much he loved and appreciated them. Ishmael spent his teenage years embracing violence because those soldiering with him were all he had.
Unicef intervened, and Ishmael’s descent into the madness of war abruptly ended when he was 17. He spent 8 months in rehabilitation, learning to sleep and eat and exist without a steady diet of drugs and fear. The United Nations selected him to present his experience of war, and, as the result of that trip to New York City, an American family adopted him permanently. He finished high school and graduated from Oberlin College. He made the choice to learn how to live again.
One of Ishmael’s saviors was writing. As he says, “words are a way to bring back to life the things that once existed.” The village life he once knew, the brothers he played with, his mother and father who taught him to be good and to work hard – all come alive for him when he writes and speaks about them. Writing is his memory keeper and the way to get himself “back to the way I had been.” His memoir A Long Way Gone was an international bestseller. His first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, was published in 2014 to wide acclaim.
When asked about his resilience, Beah said that he was able to return to himself because he had once experienced what it means to be loved. That could never be taken from him, no matter how desperate and depraved his circumstances became. He has always believed that “if you’re alive, there’s a possibility that something good will happen.” Ishmael Beah is an inspiration to all of us – funny, warm, and wise – a reminder that there is always hope. Always.