For my last Meliorist features piece I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Dez Kamara, a student and a friend. Since meeting him at CKXU radio station in 2007/2008, I have grown to better understand the incredible person he is and admire his never ending compassion and care for all people.
Born and raised in Sierra Leone, Dez Kamara’s memories of his childhood brings out a huge smile, a glint of a happy life full of love and support. He describes his home life as, “growing up as this Catholic family, our dad was the head master, our mom is a teacher. We grew up in a very conventional way, we are very grateful today. The time and the money, it was tough, but they really worked hard to educate all five kids.”
The family’s Catholic faith was an instrumental factor in their later involvement in the conflict, which confronted Dez and his family in 1991, as the rebels crept closer to the capitol, and the fighting and raids became more unpredictable and progressively violent. “Our parents, and people around us, society, we’re so homogeneous that when something happened they made sure they informed people on what was happening. Especially when they started conscripting children. At the time I was 13 years old. Growing up as a kid, and then all of a sudden there was this conflict. It’s hard to imagine, it’s really hard to imagine.”
As the conflict progressively engulphed the country, Dez and his family worked with an aid organization, Catholic Relief Services, to distribute desperately needed food and items to IDPs – Internally Displaced Peoples. Aside from aid distribution, CRS also worked to register displaced peoples and communicate information about persons safety to relatives inside the country and outside.
In 2000 Dez joined CAUSE Canada, an organization that provides support and aid to under-assisted areas throughout the world. It was through CAUSE Canada that Dez began with high schools throughout the country to empower students to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and stop the spread of misinformation. Dez explains the challenges to this campaign: “In our culture, sex in not discussed publically, so it is a challenge to get the students to take up the issue of sex, because we cannot talk about AIDS without talking about sex, so it was so important, there was so much impact. We were doing HIV/AIDS rallies, and HIV/AIDS TV competitions, radio talk shows.”
While he was working with high school students in Sierra Leone through CAUSE, Dez was asked to join St. Michaels Lodge, an organization that provided rehabilitation to former child soldiers by providing skill training, educational prospects and psychological counseling to begin preparing these children for the outside world. “We helped the kids to acquiesce skills.
The kids who did not want to go to school, who were too advanced in their ages to go to school, they learned soap making, tailoring, and other skills. There were also kids who still wanted to go to school, so we helped identify the schools for them and talking to the institutions so they could accept these kids, and understand the plight they found themselves in.”
It was at St. Michaels that Dez first worked with the documentary crew that he would later travel back to Sierra Leone with, three years after he left the country. The crew wanted to capture the wake of destruction the conflict left on the children who were, most often forcibly, conscripted as child soldiers; as well as document the rehabilitation efforts of six former child soldiers who were residents at St. Michaels. Dez was instrumental in the documentary’s success, as he was able to speak to the children and act as both a mediator and an interpreter.
It was also through CAUSE Canada that Dez would get his first opportunity to visit Canada as a G8 youth delegate for 2002 Kananaskis G8 summit. As the representative of west Africa, Dez led a team of five other delegates though the G8 agenda which featured a hope to develop a strategy of sorts that dealt with peace and security, governance issues, economic growth, sustainable development, improving health care particularly that which dealt with HIV/AIDS, and improving access to food and water.
In the spring 2003 Dez wrapped up his work with CAUSE, and was offered a position with the UN backed court created in Sierra Leone to “try those who had the greatest responsibility.”
Dez worked with the outreach department, representing the northern region of the state to prepare community meetings, and act as a mediator between the community and court, “we informed people so they knew what was going on.” Dez worked as a liaison for the civil court for a year, and then in August of 2004 he came to Canada to study, having been accepted at St. Mary’s University College in Canada.
Dez ended up at the University of Lethbridge to pursue a degree he couldn’t get at the college he started from in Calgary, Alberta. “When I came to Canada in 2002, I visited the university and got my acceptance letter and went back home and started working hard to come over here to study. Officially I arrived to study in 2004.”
After a year at St. Mary’s, Dez transferred to the University of Lethbridge, majoring in Anthropology, where he continued to work within the Lethbridge community to raise awareness about conflict and peace in Africa. His weekly radio show on CKXU features African artists carrying peaceful political messages.
Then in 2007, once again he was contacted by the documentary makers from the first St. Michaels film about doing a follow-up film to find the six children originally focused on. However, once the crew got to Sierra Leone they quickly realized that the first challenge would be to find the children in a country still struggling to maintain a rule of law and amongst thousands of young people who would be unlikely to confess their past as child soldiers.
Going back to Sierra Leone was difficult, and it left an impression of hopelessness on Dez; there is a long way to go still and precious little resources available to get there. Despite the challenges, Dez sounds hopeful for his place of birth and when speaking of Canada’s involvement with the reconstruction and peace efforts, pride seeped into his words and the hard frustration slowly ebbed away.
Shooting the documentary confronted Dez with many of a worst realties modern Sierra Leone has. A huge homeless population in the capitol city where there was once almost no one without a home.
In a conversation with an aid worker in the film, it is discussed how there is one psychiatrist and two psychiatric nurses in the country. Only three people equipped to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of millions as they return to their homes and cope with the atrocities they had experienced.
Aid organizations have pulled out to go elsewhere, and meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people are in desperate need of support. The film, The Kids of St. Michaels, shed much needed light on the continual plight of Sierra Leone’s people and the support that is still needed there.
Dez Kamara’s strength is inspiring and is the kind of quiet and lasting strength that will leaves an impact on anyone he meets and any organization he works for. With more people like him, and more people who recognize the benefits of serving others, there is hope for Sierra Leone and for communities and individuals suffering worldwide.