A Refugee's Story: From Hunger To Health And Hope

Dec 24, 2013

Refugees from all over the world work at Edesia, a nonprofit manufacturing plant that makes a fortified peanut butter paste for treating malnutrition in kids. You can hear the story I did about Edesia here. While I was touring Edesia's factory and learning about the company's work, I heard much more than I could ever fit into a minutes-long radio story - incredible stories of survival, renewal. Many of them were once recipients of the very aid Edesia now makes.

Andrew Kamara, Edesia's shipping manager, has one of those stories. He was gracious enough to share it with me, and I'm honored to be able to share some of it here. I hope it touches and inspires you as much as it did me.

Kamara taught me that, besides suffering from the lingering effects of malnutrition and other kinds of physical harm, many refugees arrive in their newly adopted country suffering from post-traumatic stress (hundreds come to Rhode Island every year, by the way). It may take years to recover, or even a lifetime.

Here's part of Kamara's story:

Kamara is from Sierra Leone, a small country in Western Africa, where a bit more than a decade ago a rebel army rose, funded by "blood diamonds" and supported by the war criminal Charles Taylor. When the smoke cleared, tens of thousands lay dead or maimed.

Kamara's family had been living a relatively comfortable life; his father was foreign-educated and worked for the government. That placed him on the rebels' hit list, however. And Kamara told me that, to keep the family safe during the early years of the conflict, they had to keep on the move.

“At age 16 I was already displaced many times in my country, Sierra Leone. I was still in high school, and you hear of rebel attacks in the southern part of the country, and then in the east, and then in the northern part of the country, and it kept going around," he said, "and the only safe place was the western part of the country which was the seat of government.”

Things 0nly got worse. Then one night, Kamara said his father made the most difficult of decisions. He gathered the family for a meeting.

"And my dad said, 'I’ve received some intelligence and the rebels are probably 10 miles away from the capitol.'

"We could hear their gun fire, we could see in the middle of the night they’re dropping bombs, mortar bombs, and it was just, a really tough situation for kids and adults and families. So my dad also, who was getting more involved in government, decided to leave. And I remember my uncle showed up and said, You know, you cannot be traveling with your family because there are rebels all around us right now. My uncle was a member of the military, and he knew they were going to lose. He said, 'There’s no way we’re going to make it out here. So you need to leave and leave now. I would suggest that you split your family because you’re a well-known person and if you’re caught by rebels your family will be slain. And we’d just also learned that our dad’s name was on the list for beheadings.”

Kamara says his father and mother took his younger siblings and fled in one direction; Kamara and two sisters headed West. The entire family ducked out in the middle of the night; hours later the rebels landed in the capitol, Freetown. Kamara remembers the flight out of town:

“I actually walked through the streets of Freetown, finding dozens of dead bodies on the street. And gunfire everywhere. And you see vultures feasting on corpses in the street, and it’s like, I could be next, you know?”

Kamara and his sisters set out for a refugee camp in Western Sierra Leone. But before they reached it, they stumbled into fierce fighting.

“We ended up in the middle of a gun battle between government troops and rebel fights. And it was at that point, after that gun battle, which lasted for well over 40 minutes, I got up, and...you look around you, there are dead bodies," Kamara said. "And there was no time to start looking for...my sisters. I know I was with them seconds ago, now where are they?”

Kamara was heartbroken, scared. He carried on to the refugee camp. Even though it was packed with other refugees, all desperate for safety, shelter, and food, Kamara says - miraculously - he ran into his sisters, who had also made it out of the gun battle alive. But more hardship lay ahead. Life in the camp was grueling.

“The conditions were horrible. There were kids dying in the camp," Kamara said. "There was no food or good drinking water. The population was so huge that the relief groups couldn’t really keep up with the pressure of taking care of everybody.”

Kamara told me he went hungry. He waited in lines, with other refugees, for the food aid humanitarian groups distributed - and ran out of, as soon as it arrived. He didn't know whether his mother, father, and other siblings were alive. But he knew he and his sisters had to get out of the country, if they wanted to live.

They found a host family willing to take them in in the United States. And soon, Kamara and his sisters arrived in a rural Northeastern Connecticut town called Pomfret. They were safe, they had a roof over their heads and food to eat. Their physical health improved. But emotionally, the Kamaras had miles to go.

“We have to deal with, 'Where do I start? What is this?" Kamara recalled of his first days in Pomfret. "Everything is new, everything is different. Of course, you’re happy to be in a country that is so safe and has everything. But it was also very much tough to adjust.”

Add to that the memory of trauma, the uncertainty of family and friends' whereabouts, and especially, Kamara said, survivors' guilt. He learned not long after arriving in Pomfret that his parents and siblings had survived, but the guilt stuck. 

"That moment that we know everybody made it out alive, in fact there were mixed emotions. You’re thinking, 'Why me? My family made it out alive but there were thousands of families that weren’t so lucky.'”

You're thinking, Why me? My family made it out alive but there were thousands of families that weren't so lucky.

Kamara told me he's still coming to terms with what happened to him, his family, his country. But he hopes to write a book about his experiences, and to help other refugees. I wish him the best.

(Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island is a  nonprofit that helps resettle refugees. That's where Edesia founder Navyn Salem has been able to find many of her employees, including Andrew Kamara.)