|Mohamed Sidibay and students from W.H. Day Elementary School (Photo from Mali Bickley)|
What is the greatest battle you have
overcome in your life? Imagine watching your parents get murdered in front of
you at three years old, being taught to carry an AK-47 taller than you before you
learned your ABCs, and being forced to take part in a war you can't comprehend.
Could you find it in your heart to speak of peace after such a violent ordeal?
Mohamed Sidibay has.
His story is one of hope, global
participation, and of how education was ultimately victorious. From child soldier,
persistent student, to influential speaker and advocate - this young man has
made it his life's mission to give a voice to the multitudes of unheard individuals who
are screaming for peace, or even worse, have had their voices silenced
Sidibay miraculously survived war in
Sierra Leone, a war that took the lives of his entire family and robbed him of
a childhood. At the age of 10 Sidibay was rescued and placed into school in
Freetown where he became involved with iEARN - an international educational
program that connects students and teachers through the Internet.
Austin Haeberle, a Peabody Award-wining
journalist looking for a story to highlight in Sierra Leone, put out a call
through the iEARN network. Haeberle went to Freetown in 2003 and worked with
Sidibay and his classmates on the production of "We Don't Want No War," a short
documentary that was part of a collection of stories from conflict-ridden
countries, "Beyond Borders."
Haeberle remembers Sidibay being reserved
and guarded at first. It took him a few days to warm up and share his story on
camera. Through the process Haeberle taught an inquisitive Sidibay about
filmmaking and a significant bond was formed. "My involvement with him has
evolved over the years and I think of him more like a colleague now, and a very
close friend," Haeberle said.
Around the same time in the early 2000s Jim
Carleton, a teacher at W.H. day Elementary school in Canada near
Toronto, wanted to connect his school with students in a developing
country and found iEARN to be the most useful tool
to bring the vision to fruition. Carlton's involvement with iEARN Sierra
Leone led to
Andrew Greene, a teacher from Freetown, visiting W.H.Day and showing
"We Don't Want No War."
|Mohamed Sidibay and Anita Townsend (Photo from Anita Townsend)|
Anita Townsend, principal of W.H. Day at the time, said "He [Sidibay] was just so compelling on
screen. He was about 11 years old and everybody just fell in love with him at
the school," Townsend's first impression of Sidibay was that of a
remarkable young man. "He was very articulate and the things he was saying were
so insightful for somebody of that age who'd been through the trauma he'd been
through," she said. Townsend was moved by Sidibay's spirit of survival and how
he aspired to help people and hoped that the violence that happened to him
wouldn't befall others.
In summer of 2005, Townsend went to
Sierra Leone and met Sidibay, who had become a devoted student. Upon her return
to Canada, Townsend and her family felt compelled to help with Sidibay's private
school fees in Freetown. A teacher at Townsend's school, Mali Bickley, and her
class also joined the campaign to aid the charismatic and passionate student.
Townsend said that as a school project it was amazing what happened and that
the campaign took on a life of its own.
Bickley was impressed with Sidibay's,
"desire to learn and desire to change the situation for himself and others."
Bickley said he helped her students appreciate the value of their education. "They've
seen what connecting with one student who needs help can do. It's been really
great for them to see that they've made a difference in his life," she
Students from W.H. Day began to honor Sidibay
on The MY HERO Project website by writing Web stories. As a student in
Sierra Leone, Sidibay was introduced to The MY HERO Project and was celebrated as a hero by the students in Canada.
|Mali Bickley, Mohamed Sidibay, Jim Carlton and students from W.H. Day Elementary School |
14, Sidibay came to the U.S. to speak at a peace conference and there met Ed Gragert,
director for iEARN USA from 1990-2012. Gragert believes tremendously in the
importance of Sidibay's presentations.
"They give a first hand account of what
young people in conflict areas face in the barrier to an education. He is able
to provide that personal human story that is a concrete example to some of the
statistics that people hear of issues that seem so far away." Gragert
continued, saying that the impact Sidibay has can, "help eliminate child
soldiers and the violence that they face."
While in New York City, Sidibay
feared for his safety if he went back to Sierra Leone and wanted to stay in the
U.S. He called upon his trusted Canadian contacts through iEARN, Townsend, Bickley and Carleton, who then reached out to Gragert and journalist Haeberle. What happened
next Sidibay refers to as "serendipitous." The individuals that had come into
his life as a child rallied together to shape his future and ultimately helped
Sidibay find a permanent foster family in New Jersey with friends and neighbors
a freshman at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, Haeberle's wife
Wendy helped tutor Sidibay. He was an astute student and excelled at an amazing
rate; by sophomore year his determination and skill had him placed in AP
He is now in his final year at George
Washington University in Washington, D.C. and is getting a degree in
International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Sidibay has done numerous speaking
engagements across North America and internationally - his message reaching
His courage is contagious.
|Mohamed Sidibay and Erin Gruwell (in center) (Photo compliments of the Freedom Writers)|
In July 2014, while in Los Angeles
for a summer internship with The MY HERO Project, Sidibay spoke at a Freedom
Writer Teacher Symposium in Long Beach, California. Making a presentation to a room full of
teachers, inspired by Erin Gruwell and "The Freedom Writers Diary," held a
special place in Sidibay's heart. "The Freedom Writers Diary" was the first
book he read when he came to the U.S. and Gruwell is a personal hero of
Sidibay's. The relationship Gruwell formed with her students enticed him to
seek out relationships with his own teachers.
Gruwell was "blown away" as Sidibay
spoke. She said, "I think his story is about taking chances and the power of
education." Gruwell continued, "He's not being mired down by what happened,
he's being excelled by what's going to happen, and that's really exciting.He is
a tribute to any kid, anywhere on the planet who can work towards the future
and say, 'I too can make it.'"
|Mohamed on a panel for Global Campaign for Education 2013 (Ed Gragert)|
On Sept. 20, 2014, at the
Capshaw-Spielberg Center for Arts and Educational Justice in Santa Monica, The
MY HERO Project is presenting an event to honor heroes as part of the
International Day of Peace. The evening will be hosted by Sidibay and will
feature music from celebrated violinist and composer, Kenji Williams. The event
will also include Ron Kovic, anti-war activist and author of the memoir, "Born
on the Fourth of July," influential teacher Erin Gruwell, and art from acclaimed
portraitist Robert Shetterly.
Sidibay desires to take the audience
on a journey and share his perspective on past and present challenges we face
in achieving peace. When asked what Sidibay hoped for future generations he
answered earnestly with one word, "Empathy."
spend so much time highlighting our differences, we actually forget how similar
we are," Sidibay said. "Often times people can turn on the news or they read
about child soldiers from other countries and find it easy to separate
themselves and just say, 'It's not us, it's them, and I can't relate to their
problems.' I speak to give a name and a face behind the stories."