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Wheelchairs for War Victims - 2003-04-07


English Feature #7-37335 Broadcast April 7, 2003

An unavoidable and tragic fallout of any war are the innocent civilians whose lives are shattered by the forces unleashed around them. Today on New American Voices you’ll hear what one individual, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, is doing to help victims of the war that recently ended in his native country.

Sulaiman Tarawaley has just personally delivered thirty-one wheelchairs to residents of an amputee camp in Sierra Leone, whose lower limbs had been hacked off by marauding rebels during the civil war in that country.

“You know, I visited Sierra Leone at the end of the war after 10 years, and when I went to the camp, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I saw citizens of Sierra Leone, some with one leg, some with no legs, kids as young as three months old with one leg or sometimes with no arms at all. This was very devastating. It drove me to tears. I couldn’t have believed that one human being could have done this to another living being in the world.”

After that first visit to the amputees’ camp a year ago, Mr. Tarawaley determined to do whatever he could, as an individual, to make a difference in these people’s lives.

“I knew that there was a dire need for people without lower limbs in Sierra Leone for wheelchairs as a means of mobility. So when I came back to the United States I contacted a few companies including the American Red Cross, which didn’t have funds to help, however they gave me the names of a few existing organizations that they thought would help. I was fortunate to have made contact with Chariots of Hope in East Hartford, Connecticut. I pleaded the case of the amputees and they promised that they would help, and in fact that help has started coming through.”

Chariots of Hope is a U.S. non-governmental organization that refurbishes donated wheelchairs and distributes them, for free, to needy people. It promised Sulaiman Tarawaley 150 wheelchairs for amputees in Sierra Leone. Mr. Tarawaley was determined to personally accompany the first installment of 31 wheelchairs, to make sure that they were not sold or otherwise diverted.

“I wanted to make sure that the promise I made to Chariots of Hope went through, that is that the wheelchairs got in the hands of those who needed them the most, people whose lower limbs had been amputated, and not go to people who had had a stroke or other forms of disability. Because even though I sympathize with their cases, but the appeal was for the wheelchairs to go directly to the victims of the 10-year civil war.”

The camp held a little ceremony for the American citizen who found a way to help his former countrymen by bringing wheelchairs for crippled victims of war. The amputees gathered under a tent, a government official and Mr. Tarawaley gave speeches, the wheelchairs were distributed.

“The ceremony was very, very emotional. There was one lady there who had had both legs hacked off. I remember in my address when I asked them not to thank me but to thank God, because I’m a believer in God and I believe it was God who gave me the motivation to solicit those wheelchairs for them, as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I said, ‘Thank God, but not me,’ she burst out into tears.”

Sulaiman Terawaley has nothing but admiration for the people in the camp, and their attempts to lead a normal life despite their handicaps. The young men, for instance, have organized a soccer team.

“They use crutches, and it’s very much amazing to see how they move around the field, kicking the ball with one leg, the only existing leg that they have. I mean these people have so much courage that it’s amazing.”

After 22 years in this country, Sulaiman Tarawaley considers himself an American. But throughout the years he has maintained contact with his native land, particularly with those of his twelve siblings who remained there.

“I am a naturalized American citizen, but there is some part that is in me that is still in Sierra Leone. Because they say, ‘rid a man of his culture, and you rid him of everything.’ There is some part of my traditional heritage that is still missing here in the United States which I only get when I go back to visit in Sierra Leone.”

On the other hand, he believes that the impulse to help others who are less fortunate, even in far-away places, is a typically American characteristic, and one that he, as an American, is proud to share.

“Had it not been an American characteristic, then Chariots of Hope in East Hartford, Connecticut would not opt to help destitute people in Sierra Leone, six thousand six hundred and sixty-seven miles away, to be exact. Stretching their arms overseas, reaching out and touching destitute people overseas, I think this is a great American culture and tradition.”

The next installment of wheelchairs is scheduled to arrive in Sulaiman Tarawaley’s home outside Washington sometime in May. He also plans to accompany that shipment to Sierra Leone, to make sure that it reaches its intended recipients – the crippled victims of Sierra Leone’s long and violent civil war.

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