Since recovering from a near-death experience at the age of 10, a young man from Liberia named Kimmie Weeks has been working to restore peace to his war-torn nation and the rest of the African continent.
At ten years old, you were probably spending most of your time playing with Barbies or Matchbox cars.
Not Kimmie Weeks: He was busy trying to save his country instead.
Weeks, now 26, was born in the turbulent African nation of Liberia. When the First Liberian Civil War began in 1989, the country was thrown into utter chaos, and he was caught in the thick of it. He witnessed boys his own age carrying AK-47s, young girls selling their bodies for sex, and corpses stacked up in the middle of the road.
In 1991, Weeks became sick with cholera, with no access to medicine or help. For days, he lay in bed, unable to move. When a neighbor tried in vain to find a pulse in his chest, he thought that the child was dead, and sent some of the other villagers to dig a shallow grave for his body.
Weeks’ mother didn’t believe that he was gone. She screamed at his lifeless body, hitting him with her fists. Just when things seemed hopeless, her son’s eyes fluttered open.
That very night, as Weeks slowly began to recover from the disease that had nearly taken his life, he made a promise to himself: Now that he’d been given a second chance, he would dedicate the rest of his life to helping other children whose lives had been ripped apart by war.
“It was almost as if childhood ended immediately,” Weeks says. The horrific experiences he encountered “gave me the vision to want to become engaged in making sure children aren’t involved in war. They gave me strength and passion and determination.”
With his newfound strength, Weeks began his mission with the goal of cleaning up his own community. He and many others had been forced to live at a refugee camp for six months, and when they finally returned home, his village was filthy, littered with trash and debris. So, with a group of friends, he organized a clean-up effort to restore the troubled village to the clean and peaceful place it had been before the war.
“It felt so good that we said, ‘Let’s start looking at other ways to help our people,’” Weeks says.
Soon, the ten-year-old boy launched a nonprofit organization, Voice of the Future, which was dedicated to protecting children in Liberia and rehabilitating former child soldiers into society. The organization started out with letter-writing campaigns to government officials, and meetings with ministers and other influential individuals. But the program took a long time to get off the ground: “People didn’t want to give money to kids,” Weeks says. “UNICEF rejected 18 of our proposals, but we kept on striving.”
It’s a good thing they did. Eventually, UNICEF realized that, as young as he was, Weeks had something important to say. The organization accepted one of his proposals, which led to a large campaign to rebuild peace in Liberia and disarm child soldiers. Thanks to Weeks’ hard work, 20,000 former child soldiers in Liberia were given the opportunity to begin new lives.
Weeks had planned to remain in Liberia and keep working with Voice of the Future for years to come, but when Liberian president Charles Taylor began sending him death threats because of documents he’d written revealing the truth about Liberia’s government policies on child soldiers, he knew that he had to leave. In 1999, disguised as a traditional African dancer, he boarded a plane to the United States, where he has been given political asylum.
Today, Weeks is a graduate of Amherst College, and is pursuing a Master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania. But he hasn’t turned his back on his beloved homeland –quite the opposite: Since moving to the United States, he’s broadened his mission with the goal of providing aid to all struggling African nations through a new nonprofit organization, Youth Action International.
Moving to America made Weeks realize that “the problems Liberia faces exist on a global scale,” he says. ” With the opportunities available here, i could have formed an organization that worked only in Liberia, but I decided to expand it.”
Through Youth Action International, Weeks and other international leaders work to provide support to post-war countries. In Liberia and other countries that have been torn apart by war, “the minute the war ends, all of the media attention goes away, and people are left alone at a time when they need the most support,” he says. “Our goal is not just to give aid today, but to create self-sustaining communities,” which will allow countries to heal and rebuild.
To that end, Youth Action International has developed programs in six African countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Uganda. Each country’s programs vary, based on the needs of the community: In Sierra Leone, the organization has opened a center where women can receive basic education and work skills, along with a microfinance loan program for struggling entrepreneurs. In Liberia, the program has funded everything from educational scholarships to orphanages to playgrounds, in hopes of giving the children there a better future than those of Weeks’ generation.
Despite all the trauma that Liberia has faced, Weeks believes there is a brighter future ahead for his homeland. “The new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is Africa’s first female president, is doing incredible things,” he says. “Despite all of the situations that people have gone through, there is so much hope. Mothers who’ve lost their children, women who’ve been raped – they all still believe there is a better day ahead.”
As for Weeks himself, he has faith that his efforts, and even the smallest charitable gestures of others, have the potential to make a huge difference to Africa’s uncertain future. “I believe that Africa will prevail,” he says. “It’s just a matter of providing the support that’s needed.”
And Liberia hasn’t seen the last of him yet: In 12 years, he plans to return to his native land – and run for president. Something tells us he’ll be a shoo-in.
To see what you can do to help Youth Action International, visit the organization’s website.comments powered by Disqus