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Living Your Commitment

A Discussion with Kimmie Weeks
photo Kimmie during a tour of refugee camps in Sierra Leone in 2005, his first trip back to Africa since being forced into exile [Hazel Chandler]

Kimmie Weeks, born in 1981, was nine years old when Liberia's brutal civil war began. He and his mother took refuge in a displacement center, where many people died from hunger and disease. Kimmie became so ill that his pulse seemed to have stopped. Staff at the center believed he was dead and put his body with those of scores of other children who had died. His mother, refusing to believe he was dead, searched through the bodies to find him and succeeded in reviving him. Kimmie describes how, shortly after that, he made a personal vow to dedicate his life to ensuring other children would not have to endure similar conditions.

At the age of 13, Kimmie began organizing with other young people in Liberia to promote child rights. While Liberia's war continued to rage, he developed an organization called the Children's Disarmament Campaign, which lobbied for the disarmament of the thousands of children being used as soldiers by various factions in the war.

As the campaign grew, the Liberian government of Charles Taylor attempted to have Kimmie assassinated. Kimmie, now 17, was able to escape over the border to Côte d'Ivoire, and was granted political asylum in the United States. There, he founded Youth Action International (www.youthactioninternational.org), a nonprofit organization working to rebuild war-torn African communities.

In January 2009, Kimmie was a speaker in SGI-USA's Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series, in New York City. As part of the series, speakers engage in a Q&A with SGI-USA youth representatives prior to delivering their speeches. Below is an excerpt of that discussion.

SGI-USA Youth: I also want to make a contribution to society, especially to young people. Day to day, the most challenging thing is to maintain my determination. How do you maintain yours?

Kimmie Weeks: I remember very clearly my time together in the civil war with my mother. Now, I was 10 years old when the war was going on, a greedy kid! Whatever tiny little bit of food was available, my mom would pass it to me before she ate anything. Of course, as a kid I wasn't thinking, "Oh, wait, my mom hasn't eaten anything; let me ration this and leave some for her." It wasn't until later that I looked back and could see the sacrifice she made every day. That, and looking at all the other women who go through what my mom went through--all the women in war, all the fathers in war--that's a driving force for me, because if I can impact a family so that a mother doesn't have to go through what my mother went through, a father doesn't have to watch his children die, then that always feels like I am paying back my mom for all the times that I ate all the food.

But the second thing--I could give a hundred speeches and you could watch all the videos on YouTube, but no experience is as powerful as actually going and seeing. That is what gives me the greatest hope: meeting people in the poorest communities who have hope, people in the most extreme circumstances who are saying, "I know there's a better tomorrow, and I'll fight and do everything I can to see that tomorrow." If they can be hopeful, why can't we who have been blessed with so many resources?

SGI-USA Youth: You must see a lot of things you want to try and fix. What advice do you have for getting things accomplished and not just being overwhelmed?

KW: Each year Youth Action International interns travel and work with us in various parts of Africa. It's usually their first trip to a postwar African country. For the first week, they're just trying to get over the fact that they've come into a community where absolutely nothing's working, and wherever you turn there is an issue. Imagine the burden of that; because we have particular projects we do, and we can't solve all the problems in the countries that we're working in. So for them it's very frustrating.

Over time, it sinks in that even if you're doing what you would consider the smallest thing, it's a part of a larger picture--and being comfortable about that. The strength is in that realization.

When Youth Action International started, we were just trying to do everything everywhere. And I realized at some point that we have to focus and narrow it down, and I have to reach the point where I am at ease knowing that I can't do everything, but that we are doing something. The key is to do something.

SGI-USA Youth: Do you have any memory of that experience when your mother found you on a pile of dead bodies?

KW: Yes, that was the critical turning point. I didn't realize what had happened; all I remember is feeling my mom shaking my body, and me waking up. I had no idea that I was lying on a pile of dead bodies, or anything like that.

It was after that, when she explained to me what had happened, there was this sense of "You can live your life to make sure nobody goes through this." And that's been the journey ever since. So whenever I travel to a poor community and I see the children who are suffering, it hits me in a very personal way--I know what they're going through, I know what it feels like. And that's an additional push to want to do more. And yes, it's very difficult going to a place sometimes and realizing that we don't have the resources to help everybody.

photo An impromptu peace rally in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in 2003, during the country's civil war [© Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

SGI-USA Youth: Can you talk about your experience of confronting the injustice in Liberia? It must have required a lot of courage.

KW: When I started the first organization in 1994, we were a bunch of kids. When it came to funding, nobody knew how to deal with kids writing and asking for money. We wrote lots of letters to UNICEF asking for different kinds of aid and were always rejected, because they thought, "It's a bunch of kids; they're going to go buy candy."

Then finally, a group of us started talking about children's disarmament, saying if we can't get the guns away from everybody, let's try to get them away from the children. So we started writing proposals, thinking they were going to be rejected. Then UNICEF decided they would support that particular project. Of course we all thought, "Oh no, now we've got to go and talk to rebel leaders and warlords!" But we did.

It was very, very scary. We had never done this before. We had the option of not doing it--we could have just walked away from it and nothing would have happened. For us it was about building up the strength to do it, and the integrity to keep on. I was about 16 at that time. Ultimately the key was realizing that our goal was being achieved. The rebel leaders that we met were signing our petition and recording messages saying that the kids fighting for them should disarm by the end of 1996; which was just incredible, because they had never done it before.

I think the energy and passion that a small group of us had, started to become almost viral and spread to kids across the country who, because they saw someone standing up and setting an example, were willing to stand up and do the same. I think that's happened in every mass movement. If a person believes in something strongly, they can cast enough energy and light that other people can connect with and join in, and it starts to build. And people don't see that coming. That's the beauty of grassroots organizing.

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[Manuel Elias]

SGI-USA Youth: What can each of us do in our lives, right now, for countries like Liberia?

KW: I often tell people that I think there are answers to that question within everybody. Everybody has a different calling--a different purpose, or mission. If I said to everyone here, I want you all to go out and start making speeches because that will change the world--maybe that's not your thing. You might do it for a few weeks, but after a while it's going to dwindle away and stop altogether. But if you find that thing that moves you and drives you, and go and do it, the chances of you burning out will be slim, because there will always be this internal thing driving you. It's about people finding that and connecting.

In the Children's Disarmament Campaign in Liberia, we never said to people, "You must be a part of this campaign." Our very first peaceful demonstrations were just the members of our organization--5 or 10 people--then we had 20, and then we had 30. And then more people started to get involved.

I think there is tremendous power and potential in young people, if young people could unite and move forward together.

SGI-USA Youth: Can you share a little more about the vow you made, and about the importance of having a vow?

KW: The interesting thing is that when I made that vow I was very young, so I didn't know what I was going to do. I mean, now, when I say I am going to do something, I set a goal and I work toward it. But at that point--at 10--I had no idea what I would be doing. I just said that if I survive, this will be my life's commitment.

The second aspect of that was being able to follow through after the war. Because it would have been very easy after we came back to normalcy to have said to myself, "Well, I was 10, I was hungry, and I didn't know better," and made an excuse to do something else. And I think that is the key for everybody who makes a vow, or a promise, whatever you want to call it: to follow through. Because you can make as many vows as you want, and it doesn't matter unless you follow through.

SGI-USA Youth: You dealt with rebel leaders who put weapons in the hands of children, and you speak about people who are completely oblivious of poverty--which is more of a threat in the world, people who are evil, or people who don't even want to know about the problems?

KW: During the first post-war Liberian elections, the American ambassador to Liberia at that time said something to the effect that there are more good people in Liberia than bad people, and it's time for the good people to win. And I think that holds true for this scenario. There are people who do a lot of evil. If you take the Liberian war, you could probably name about 10 to 15 people, probably less, who had the most to do with engineering that conflict. And that happens across the world, where there are just a handful of bad people, whereas the good people who are asleep number millions. So I think the key issue is waking up those people who are sleeping. Because that's probably doing more harm to the world. I think that once everybody awakens--awakens to this brilliance that's inside everyone--then we'll be able to shine such a bright light that we will knock out the evil guys! Because they are so few. We've got power in numbers; but it's realizing that, coming together. We'd be able to do so much.

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