• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Q&A: Former child soldier speaks out for those without a voice

News Stories, 29 June 2007

© AP/F.Franklin
Ishmael Beah, former child soldier.

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States, June 29 (UNHCR) Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, recently published his best-selling memoir, "A Long Way Gone." At the age of 12, Beah fled his home and family following an attack by rebels and began to wander the turbulent West African country in search of safety. At 13, he was picked up by the government army and forced to fight with them for two years. Beah was eventually released and sent to a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) rehabilitation centre. From there, he moved to the United States where he attended high school and college and has since become an influential advocate and writer. Beah recently sat down with Carly Stadum, UNHCR public information intern in Washington, to discuss his life. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you write "A Long Way Gone"?

I wrote it for the kids and the people who continue to be dragged through this war. I wrote it because I felt that there was a need to really move people; I felt that there needed to be another step to get to people's hearts, so that people can pay attention to this issue.

Do you think your book has raised awareness about the plight of child soldiers and refugees?

I think it has done quite a lot. One of the jokes that I make, but I do mean it, is the fact that once this book became popular, people understood that Sierra Leone is a country, that people live there, that they are as human as people are elsewhere to me, that's something. It's a starting point, because before no one knew about Sierra Leone. I hope that when people read the book, they're able to connect to the people that they read about. They see that they're only human beings having a difficult time through war. They can't turn away anymore, they've made that human connection that they go on and find more information about this country.

What kind of impact has your book made?

I think that when you expose people to a war you can get rid of a lot of misperceptions. For example, the average person who doesn't know about a country. When a refugee [from that country] tries to seek asylum, that person doesn't have any sort of compassion for them because they have never heard of where the refugees are from and who they are. When they are exposed to what is going on around the world for someone to walk through the desert, thousands of miles then they know for someone to struggle so hard, that something must be wrong where they are coming from. When people have this exposure, they treat people more humanely.

How has being a refugee and child soldier affected your work?

I'm able to appreciate what I have here so much more than people who have never lost anything. I have had so many opportunities and I've tried to use my experience as a way to speak for those who don't have opportunities, so they too can have them. It's so easy to come to the US and to forget about what you've left behind. But those who have come here and have a lot need to tell people about how it is where we're from. Many bad things happen in Africa, but there are also good things that happen there. We need to paint those pictures as well in people's minds, because ... that resilience, that spirit, that strength, that courage to survive, to continue living, doesn't come from empty space. It comes from these cultures that we grew up in before they were disrupted.

How did you become involved in advocacy work in the US?

When I came here and realized that most people didn't even know that my country existed, I understood that I could get angry or I could try to educate people. So I decided to speak about where I was from and slowly I started to speak about my experiences. Most people haven't seen someone who was not only dragged into war as a child but also survived it. When they hear about it, it seems so far away. I wanted to speak about it, so people see that it isn't so distant, that the problem is not just an African problem but a worldwide problem ... and that there is a need for people to pay attention. So I started speaking. I think that when you show how communities, how families are disrupted, then there's a human element to it that people see that these people's lives were just like theirs until they were destroyed. You need to give people a context.

How can writers raise more awareness about refugees and child soldiers?

More can always be done, because not only do you want to warn people, but you want to keep reminding them about the needs. The issues are bigger than me and they continue in several different countries so you can keep reminding people. I would never claim that I understand every refugee situation, or that I understand every child soldier. I would never say that, because I have lived the life, I may have some understanding more than other people. I am not an expert. When people see your story is genuine, they are willing to learn more.

Have you looked at ways of providing opportunities for others like yourself in Africa to use writing, or other art forms, to express themselves?

I have a foundation that I'm creating. One of the things that will help people in Sierra Leone who have gone through the war and the refugees who have returned with nothing, is to give them opportunities to do something with themselves. In terms of healing, everyone has their own way of healing. Writing helped for me, but that doesn't mean that it helps everyone. Some people might not want to remember at all, and that's their way of healing. I want to empower people through education, using my spotlight in the media to raise funds. I want to build a literary centre where I would have kids coming to check out literature and to read for fun. Growing up as a kid, we never read for fun. Because there were no books, there was never that culture of reading. People couldn't afford books.

Do you have a message for the displaced of the world?

My message to them is be patient and always hopeful because sometimes it might seem things will never change, but they could change. Also, things don't change overnight, especially when you move to a new place. I think that a lot of people think that if you just step on US soil the next day you will make money. It's not that easy, so be patient, and be open, because openness itself is a strength that allows you to stay alive and continue to outlive those struggles. Also, be proud. Never doubt your humanity. Hold on to your culture because that's really what makes you who you are.




UNHCR country pages

The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol

The most frequently asked questions about the treaty and its protocol.


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Prominent Refugees

An A-Z of refugee achievers around the world.

To Be a Refugee

Related news stories to Unit plan for ages 9-11 in Human Rights and Refugees: To Be a Refugee

Refugees: Telling Their Stories

A publication of the winners & finalists of UNHCR's High School Writing Competition

[PDF, 40pp. 1.2Mb]

Refugee teenagers

Related news stories to Unit plan for ages 12-14 in Civic Education

Action for the Rights of Children (ARC): Critical Issues - Child Soldiers

Briefing notes for facilitators, training materials, resources.

Summary update of Machel study follow-up activities in 2001-2002

"Adults go to war, but they don't realize what damage they are doing to children." - A Nicaraguan child

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni
Play video

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni

From her small house in Idomeni, Greek grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou, 82, saw first-hand the bare need of refugees desperate for food to feed their children or clean water to shower and wash their clothes. As a daughter of ethnic Greek refugees herself - who left Turkey in a population exchange after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war - she is now doing all she can to help the latest wave of refugees by giving out food and clothes.
Greece: Health risk to refugee children in IdomeniPlay video

Greece: Health risk to refugee children in Idomeni

Some 10,000 refugees and migrants remain camped out at an informal site at Greece's northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The makeshift home is also home to an estimated 4,000 children, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Doctors warn conditions in the camp are becoming dangerous for children.
Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotelPlay video

Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotel

After five years of conflict that destroyed their spacious children's home in Wa'ar, dozens of orphaned and abandoned children had to relocate to a small former hotel in nearby Homs. The abandoned hotel has limited dormitories, no playgrounds or classroom.