Far from home he works for the
children of Sierra Leone.
Matthias Seisay spoke out against
the use of child soldiers in his native Sierra Leone and was
to flee the country and work for those children
from afar. He will graduate from Marquette in May and then
begin working on a graduate degree in dispute resolution. He
hopes to one day return home.
Every year UNICEF releases its list
of the most dangerous nations for children, the West African
of Sierra Leone finds itself at or near the top. Sierra Leone
has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Only about
one of every three children attends school. Basic necessities
such as clean drinking water and health care are scarce. Conditions
for children worsened in 1991 when the country became embroiled
in a civil war that raged for 11 years — and children
were conscripted as soldiers.
“The war was planned and funded by
adults but it was fought largely by children,” says Seisay.
By the government’s own estimate, 10,000
children served in the army. But that figure is based solely
on those enlisted at the time of disarmament and is viewed
One child soldier was one too many for Seisay. “I
grew up believing that people in uniform are supposed to protect
civilians, not harass them,” he says. “I couldn’t
sit by while these children were being exploited. I had to
He began speaking out against the use of
child soldiers and was named an enemy of the state. In 1997,
he was imprisoned and after a month of physical torture and
psychological abuse, was released only because his family and
friends were able to pay a bribe.
He went on to found the Sierra Leone section
of Defense for Children International, which today is the country’s
leading probono legal service provider for child offenders
and children suffering human rights abuses. His efforts to
protect children continued to expand. He served as an intern
with the United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
But even as he spoke out against the exploitation
of children around the world, Seisay maintained a special connection
with the children of Sierra Leone. If he had his way, he would
still live with the young people of his native country. But
that is not an option now. In 2001, Seisay learned that his
life was in danger again and fled the country.
He applied for and received political refugee
status from the U.S. government, enrolled at Marquette, and
began studying social welfare and justice. “At this point,
I realized I could make a living and try to put the ugly past
behind me,” Seisay says.
But he couldn’t forget children like
the 12-year-old boy who had served in the rebel army since
he was 8. The boy told Seisay that if he died in combat, he
would be reincarnated as an adult. “These kids were brainwashed
and drugged,” he says. Just in case psychological and
pharmacological manipulation weren’t enough, the rebels
often required child recruits to kill a family member. That
way, Seisay says, the child could never return to his home
Seisay founded a nonprofit organization called Friends
Across, which in 2003 began collecting used bicycles
to send to Sierra Leone’s children.
has a bit to do with my childhood. I know what it means to
walk in the rain and get to school at 8 am. Bicycles would
serve as a great source of encouragement for these kids to
take their schooling seriously. An interesting part of the
program is that we are not giving them the bikes to keep.
Every recipient has to sign an agreement with their respective
school principal that they’re using the bikes on a
yearly basis, and whether or not that contract will be renewed
depends on their academic performance and other factors."
“I go around saving bikes from police
stations, scrap heaps and schools — with the help of
my Milwaukee friends” he says. “I tell people here
that there are kids almost half a world away who would turn
their trash into treasure.”
As his country continues to recover from
the war, Seisay and Friends Across are helping in other ways,
too. Last year, Seisay opened a tailor shop there to train
former child soldiers marketable skills. Also, working from
here, he opened a beauty shop where former prostitutes can
get a fresh start. “Most of these women just want to
put food on the table for their children,” he says. “We’re
trying to help them not only do that but also show their kids
how to live with dignity.”
Seisay hopes to open an auto shop and develop
a health clinic there and someday return home. “The hardest
thing,” he says, “is not being able to physically
touch the children I’m trying to help and not being able
to see the smiles on their faces.”