Taking Courage

From the New York Daily News


Monday, June 5th, 2006

“When I lost my arm, I thought, ‘That’s the end of my life,'” says Muctar Jalloh.

“My goals had been to attend school and to write. Sometimes I would think, ‘I don’t think it is necessary for me to live.’ Then I started taking courage.”

Jalloh, 29, grew up in the African nation of Sierra Leone. After surviving overwhelming brutality at the hands of rebels in his home country, he became the leader of a group of survivors of torture, called Victims of War, in a refugee camp in the city of Waterloo.

Today a resident of Staten Island, Jalloh has dedicated himself to assisting others. He works with the mentally disabled and he advocates for better medical care and housing for survivors of torture in his native land.

Sitting in the plaza across from the Staten Island Ferry terminal in New York Harbor on a recent evening, Jalloh’s large dark eyes reflect grief, determination and even joy as he tells his story.

In 1997, after graduating from high school in his hometown of Kabala in Sierra Leone, Jalloh went to live with his uncle and his uncle’s family to pursue higher education. The family went into hiding to avoid rebels who were brutalizing civilians. For three months, the family lived in the bush, or jungle, surviving on wild foods and moving to avoid capture.

In April 1998, they were captured by a gang of rebels.

When recounting the horrors, Jalloh’s eyes grow solemn, but he proceeds in a strong and steady voice.

The rebels found the book he had been writing.

“I was writing every single thing I went through [while hiding] in the bush,” he recalls. “My book was titled, ‘Struggle in the Bush.’ It was a great struggle there, and I was writing every single day.”

After armed rebels beat him and his uncle, one of them, wielding a machete, said, “So you’re a writer? And this is your book?” The man ordered Jalloh to extend his right hand.

“I was pleading to him, ‘I know you cannot do it,'” he recalls. “After about 20 minutes of pleading, the machete hit me on my head.”

Jalloh bends forward and shows two raised scars on either side of his skull.

“Then he took a gun and put it on my back and said, ‘If you fail to put down your hand, I will kill you.’ He asked my uncle to grab my arm.”

His uncle refused.

“I told my uncle, ‘Hold it, because he says he is going to kill me if you don’t. Nobody is going to blame you.'”

Jalloh, who was right-handed, remembers pleading with the man to take his left arm, not his right, so as not to deprive him of his avocation. But the man hacked off Jalloh’s right arm, after forcing his uncle to hold it.

“He asked me to go to my [country’s] president and to the United Nations, and they can give me back my arm.”

Jalloh remembers staggering away and hearing a gunshot.

“He had shot my uncle.”

His uncle survived the shot, but later endured the atrocity of having his own arm hacked off by rebels who murdered his infant son.

Jalloh and his uncle waited 15 days to receive medical treatment. Eventually, a nongovernmental organization transported them to its refugee camp.

There, fellow torture survivors voted him president of their advocacy group, Victims of War.

Many of the camp’s 2,000 residents, Jalloh recalls, were suicidal.

“I would counsel people, ‘This is life. We have to take it as is,'” he says. “‘Nothing will change reality. But, if we take courage and find things to do, we can go on.

“‘If there is life, there is something we can achieve.'”

He concludes, “I was lucky to serve the people as president.”

Meanwhile, in October 1999, after reading about atrocities in Sierra Leone, New York State Assemblyman Matthew Mirones (R-S.I., Brooklyn) resolved to help.

Mirones, who also owns Arimed, a company that manufactures prosthetic limbs, made arrangements to bring victims of mutilation to the United States for medical treatment and prosthetics.

“I asked many people to help, from orthopedic surgeons to hospital presidents to deli owners, and I don’t think there was one person who hesitated,” Mirones says.

Doctors at Staten Island University Hospital donated their services and members of the Staten Island Rotary Club provided food, housing and other comforts.

In September 2000, a small group including Jalloh, two other adults and six children came to New York.

Due to the efforts of other Staten Islanders, receiving a prosthetic arm and hand were just the beginning of Jalloh’s American journey.

After attending a meeting of the Staten Island Rotary Club, Schuyler Rogg, a Wagner College student who had founded Rotoract Club, a junior Rotary chapter at the college, approached Richard Guarasci, at that time vice president and provost, to initiate activities for the group.

Guarasci arranged for the amputees to use the college’s pool and receive tutoring. Escorting the children to the college rekindled Jalloh’s yearning to study.

“I saw the students going in and out of classes and I was hungry for education,” he recalls.

Guarasci, now president of Wagner College, arranged for Jalloh to receive a scholarship.

“Muctar and all the children represent the ability to see past the worst of human behavior, survive it and live with joy and intelligence and dignity,” says Guarasci.

“One small thing we could do as a college was enable Muctar to continue his original journey, which was to be well educated.” Of his scholarship, Jalloh says, “Wagner College gave me something I thought I’d never have again in my life. I learned a lot, not only [academically] but that open heart, that love.”

Since then, Wagner College has arranged a scholarship for his younger sister, Rugaitu, 18, who is presently studying to be a nurse.

Jalloh graduated in 2005 with a degree in sociology and social work, and recently completed an internship working with the mentally disabled at Community Resources, a nonprofit on Staten Island. He spoke at his commencement, and has testified before Congress, the UN and at City Hall in New York — the city he loves.

He has spoken to Rotary Club chapters and is open to speaking to other groups about the need to raise funds for medicine and housing for torture victims, he says.

His uncle, who was with Jalloh in hiding, died recently in Sierra Leone — for lack of good medical care, Jalloh believes. Tears come to Jalloh’s eyes as he recalls his uncle’s pride in his accomplishments.

“The day I told him, ‘I’m in college, I’m studying,’ he said, ‘Keep it up.’ The day I called him and said, ‘I got my degree,’ he said, ‘You can change someone’s life.'”

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