|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 for good.
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 said.
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
At age 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 of Haeberle.
As 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 classes.
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 thousands.
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."
"People 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."
Global Campaign for Education
- - to promote education as a basic human right and mobilize to create political will in the United States and internationally to ensure universal quality education, which is at the core of all human development.
iEARN and The MY HERO partner in the Learning Circle
- iEARN is a non-profit organization made up of over 30,000 schools and youth organizations in more than 140 countries. iEARN empowers teachers and young people to work together online using the Internet and other new communications technologies.
The Freedom Writers Foundation
- - to empower educators and students to positively impact their own lives and the world around them.
Global Education Conference
- The Global Education Conference is a collaborative, inclusive, world-wide community initiative involving students, educators, and organizations at all levels
MY HERO story on Mohamed
- written by student Jaylin from Canada