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Ishmael Beah urges Jamaican children not to surrender to violence

© UNICEF/2008/Markisz
Former child soldier Ishmael Beah brings a positive message of non-violence to the young people of Jamaica.

By Allison Hickling

KINGSTON, Jamaica, 1 May 2008 – In a country where violence and conflict are the order of the day for many children, former child soldier Ishmael Beah has inspired Jamaicans with a powerful message of hope and resilience.

This week, on his first mission as UNICEF’s Advocate for Children Affected by War, Mr. Beah met with young Jamaicans who are growing up in violent environments and visited several communities where children’s lives are disrupted by crime and gang conflict.

Violence is a major threat to Jamaican childhood. Eighty-seven per cent of children aged 2 to 14 are reportedly subjected to psychological or physical punishment. Only 28 per cent of children think their communities are safe, according to a national survey.

© UNICEF/2008/Markisz
Youths from the violence-prone Trenchtown community play football with UNICEF’s Advocate for Children Affected by War, Ishmael Beah.

Children pressed into gang warfare

“You all have the strength and the capacity to triumph over violence,” Mr. Beah told a group of children and young people in Spanish Town, west of Kingston. He was visiting the UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization Children First, which offers remedial education, life-skills training and other opportunities to children at risk.

As a child of 13, Mr. Beah was forced to fight in the brutal civil war in his native Sierra Leone. He was eventually rescued and rehabilitated with help from UNICEF. Today, he travels the globe campaigning against the use of children in conflict, and urging youths to resist violence.

Children across Jamaica are being pressed into gang warfare, where they are used as spies and look-outs, and are often forced to conceal and use guns. In the violence-prone communities of Trenchtown, Arnett Gardens, Federal Gardens and Dunkirk in Kingston, Mr. Beah urged children who lack education and employment opportunities not to give in to the appeal of gangs.

Ishmael Beah speaks at Children First, a UNICEF-supported NGO providing remedial education and training to Jamaican teenagers and young adults in Spanish Town.

Opportunities in poor communities

He reinforced the message at the UNICEF-supported Eastern Peace Centre, a safe haven for children in the Mountain View community. “Violence seems fascinating when it’s not a part of your life,” he said. “But once you’re in it, there is nothing fascinating about it at all.”

Breaking the cycle of violence is a long-term process, Mr. Beah emphasized. He advocated treating young perpetrators of violence as victims, and providing them with unconditional love, support and forgiveness. Another important step, he said, is to make more schooling and income-generating opportunities available to children and young people in poor communities. 

Mr. Beah also believes strongly in giving hope to children who see no way out of a troubled life. In Jamaica, his words of encouragement resonated deeply with children for whom violence is a daily reality. 

“Ishmael can reach a lot of young people,” said one young resident of Dunkirk. “He can bring a lot of hope to children who don’t have any.”




30 April 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Melissa Leschuck reports on Ishmael Beah’s trip to Jamaica and the message of non-violence he delivered to young people there. Filmed by Eduardo Cure.
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