Sierra Leone children thank young benefactors

Maimed during war, they meet city pupils who aided treatment

November 28, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Sitting shoulder to shoulder in crisp Catholic school uniforms, about 200 East Baltimore children gazed at three young West African visitors who came to thank them yesterday for collecting pennies to help them seek treatment for their war wounds: severed arms and legs.

At SS. James and John Catholic Elementary School, pupils exchanged shy smiles with the small delegation from Sierra Leone, a country wracked by a decade-long war in which rebels have fought to gain control of its diamond mines.

Two girls, Damba Koroma, 9, and Fatu Koroma, 11 (no relation), each had an arm cut off at the elbow but have become adept at using artificial arms. Mohamed Conteh, 5, pranced around the assembly room aided by an artificial leg.

They were asked whether they liked candy, what they wanted to be when they grow up and whether they went to school in their village.

The answers: Yes, they liked candy; Damba wants to be a minister, Mohamed a doctor and Fatu aspires to help the people of Sierra Leone; and no, their village has no school.

Then another pupil, Marvin Gross, 6, asked, "How did it feel when you got hurt?"

"Real bad," Damba said.

Damba read a message to the school: "We want you to know we love you, may God bless you."

Her words brought tears to the eyes of Richelle Ford, 10. "I'm more fortunate than them," Richelle said, even with her own losses to bear: the deaths in recent years of her mother and the aunt who was raising her.

The three Sierra Leone children were victims of rebel violence directed at thousands of civilians. Tens of thousands have been maimed or killed.

The war is subsiding, and the three are learning to negotiate the new world they entered last year from an amputee camp in Freetown.

They are in a group of seven children and two adults who a New York doctor, Matthew Mirones, volunteered to treat and fit with prosthetic limbs.

They now live in Staten Island, with the Rotary Club acting as their official guardian in the United States. They are learning English and math at a Catholic school.

But the Baltimore pupils entered the picture before their passage to the United States.

"You played a large role in bringing us here," Etta Toure, coordinator for the nonprofit Friends of Sierra Leone's project for providing artificial limbs for war victims, told the gathering.

"You were the first to give us money. A lot of people started helping, but you were the first. Your money paid for the airline tickets. We will never forget you."

Four years ago, as a social justice project during Lent, the school's children started saving pennies to send to the Friends of Sierra Leone group, an idea suggested by Mary Ellen Long, a teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer.

Last fall, the Sierra Leone group traveled to Washington to bear witness to the horrors of the civil war at a congressional committee hearing. Five pupils from SS. James and John Catholic Elementary School attended.

Long said yesterday that she was amazed to see the results of the school's effort, which raised about $3,000 over the years since she placed "a little jar on a table in the back of the classroom."

"Blessed are the peacemakers" Long said, quoting the Bible to the assembled classes. "You are the peacemakers of today, and you fill my heart."

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