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Helping Amputees in Sierra Leone - 2002-12-09


Naturalized American citizens, even those who have lived here for many years and consider themselves to be patriotic Americans, often retain a soft spot in their hearts for their native country. After 22 years in the United States, Sulaiman Tarawaley, a VOA studio engineer, decided to do what he could to help a group of survivors of the civil war in his native Sierra Leone.

On a recent visit to Sierra Leone, Sulaiman Tarawaley, a journalist and radio technician by profession, visited a camp for amputees -- victims of the 10-year civil war that had just ended in the country. As a newscaster he had regularly reported on the situation in Sierra Leone, but seeing the reality made a great impact on him.

“When I went there, I could not help but shed tears. Because it’s so disheartening to see young people with no arms, one leg, some having their ten fingers chopped off, women with no arms. What I said to myself was, being a United States citizen from Sierra Leone, and knowing the enormous opportunities in this country, I was going to come back and individually or solely by myself try to make a difference to help these people in the amputees’ camp.”

Upon returning home to the United States, Mr. Tarawaley found an organization called the Chariots of Hope that was willing to help him. The organization collects and refurbishes used wheelchairs to donate to needy people. It promised to donate a total of about 150 wheelchairs for Sierra Leone. Mr. Tarawaley says the first installment of 35 wheelchairs is already stored in his home.

“I intend to ship them very shortly to Sierra Leone to distribute them myself, making sure that the wheelchairs only get into the hands of those who deserve them the most. Because if I stay behind and only ship them to Sierra Leone, they probably might end up in the wrong hands.”

Sulaiman Tarawaley, one of a family of 13 siblings, came to the United States to study journalism in 1979, when he was 30 years old. He says that at first he found some of the customs here strange and different.

“The day after I arrived in the United States –- you know, Christmas is celebrated in Sierra Leone like it’s a carnival, a festival. But when I arrived in the United States on the 23rd of December, on the 25th my brother-in-law… I rode with him in his car. I didn’t see people on the street. I said, wait a second, here, what is happening here, people don’t celebrate Christmas in this country? Because I was expecting the same kind of festivities that we enjoy in Africa here. And he told me, ‘Oh no, you think you’re in Africa? You’re not.’ He said, ‘People are having fun at home, enjoying good food, drinking good wine, sitting together with their families.’ He said, this is the way Christmas is celebrated here.”

It was not only the customs that were different.

“The weather was a surprise to me. I had never tasted winter in my life. And when I came here and I saw snow for the very first time, and I picked up snow from the street, outside, from the parking lot, and I remembered an old song (sings)’Oh snow, white, my pretty little snow, white…’ I handled the snow in my hand and I was singing this song, knowing that I was now in this big country, this wonderful country, the United States of America.”

While attending first the University of the District of Columbia and then the University of Maryland, to support himself Mr. Tarawaley worked part-time in a steel mill, then drove a taxicab. At the suggestion of a professor, he also volunteered as a newsreader at a radio station to build up experience in the field. After graduating he worked in a variety of jobs in commercial radio, including broadcasting news from Africa and hosting an African news talk show. Eventually he found a job as a newscaster and reporter for the English to Africa service of the Voice of America. For the last three years, he has worked as a broadcast technician in VOA’s studios.

In the meantime he bought a house, a car, married, and now has a 3-year old daughter that is the apple of his eye. Mr. Tarawaley says that while building his life in the United States, he never lost touch with his Sierra Leonean culture and roots. Now he is concentrating on delivering the wheelchairs donated by Chariots of Hope to Sierra Leoneans whose limbs were amputated by marauding rebel factions.

“I believe that the greatest gift in life is when you see somebody suffering, and you try to alleviate the suffering of that individual. I was touched when I visited the amputees’ camp, and I came back with the hope that I was going to go back to help the amputees. After I have distributed the wheelchairs to the amputees, when I go to sleep and wake up the next day and know that I have been able to make somebody’s life comfortable in this world, I think I will be very happy within myself. It’s a feeling money cannot buy.”

Sulaiman Tarawaley, one of an estimated 10 thousand immigrants from Sierra Leone in the Washington metropolitan area and a veteran of 12 years with VOA.

English Feature #7-37005 Broadcast December 9, 2002