The Magazine of Marquette University | Summer 2006

 

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Working for the Children

Far from home he works for the children of Sierra Leone.

By Mike Thee

Matthias Seisay spoke out against the use of child soldiers in his native Sierra Leone and was forced 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.

Friends Across Web site
UNICEF: Sierra Leone at a Glance
Facts About Sierra Leone
Defence for Children Intl. Sierra Leone
Committee on the Rights of the Child

Every year UNICEF releases its list of the most dangerous nations for children, the West African country 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 as incomplete.

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 do something.”

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 fled the country

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 village.

Sending bikes home

Seisay founded a nonprofit organization called Friends Across, which in 2003 began collecting used bicycles to send to Sierra Leone’s children.

“My motivation 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.”

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