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June/July 2007
A Tale of Two Storytellers
The Satya Interview with Ishmael Beah and Laura Simms

Storyteller Laura Simms first met Ishmael Beah at a UN conference in 1996 called Children’s Voices, where 57 young people from 23 countries came together to discuss the challenges they faced—homelessness, child labor, prostitution and war. Ishmael Beah, 15, left his country for the first time to attend, and something about his story captivated Laura Simms.

At 10 years-old Ishmael was too young to understand the complexity of the civil war that had just begun in Sierra Leone. Refugees started fleeing to his village. “It was evident they had seen something that plagued their minds, something that we would refuse to accept if they told us all of it,” he writes. But by the age of 12, the war had finally reached Ishmael. The RUF, Revolutionary United Front, had invaded and destroyed his home. After being on the run for several months and losing his entire family to the bloodshed, Ishmael and his peers were recruited to join government forces. “We had no choice. Leaving the village was as good as being dead.” Armed with an AK-47, addicted to “brown brown” (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder), and given the nickname “Green Snake,” Ishmael became a child soldier.

His book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), documents these years of his childhood. Ishmael poignantly shares stories of his youth, his indoctrination into war and his journey back to regain his humanity.
With the help of Laura Simms, who took Ishmael in as her own son, Ishmael managed to flee Sierra Leone in 1998, and move to New York where they both live today.

Laura loves the honor of being a storyteller in the modern world, using stories to promote tolerance, peace and environmental stewardship. Ishmael also continues his storytelling tradition by advocating on behalf of child soldiers. Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to catch up with Ishmael Beah and his American mom, Laura Simms, and listen to their stories.

Laura, what was it about Ishmael that first grabbed your attention?
Laura Simms: I think it was his equanimity. His capacity for listening. His inner glow. That was before the conference began, when I first met him. When I heard his story later that day, I was deeply penetrated by the violence of what he had been forced to engage in and the tremendous loss and suffering that he and all these children had lived through.

Ishmael, can you explain what it was like initially to be removed from the war and placed in the rehabilitation center in Freetown, Sierra Leone?
Ishmael Beah: For the first two months, we were going through withdrawal from the drugs. After that, the trauma hits. You begin to remember. It takes a while for people to recover. It took me about eight months to regain myself and continue the process of healing. Turning a young person into a killer is easy to do. You destroy everything that’s dear to them. To bring them back, to undo those acts, takes a selfless compassionate person.

In your book, A Long Way Gone you talk about how at the rehabilitation center, you and your peers were at first angered when the staff would say “it’s not your fault,” but eventually you believed it. How did you come to accept and forgive yourself for what happened in the war and truly come to believe that it wasn’t your fault?
IB: We didn’t think people could care, but it was their perseverance—their willingness to view us as children—that eventually made us believe it.

Laura, what was it like when Ishmael first came to live with you?
LS: We were both thrown into a foreign country. I had to become a mom to an African boy and he had to become a son to an American woman. I think we both had to listen and observe and ask a lot of questions. We had an amazing thing happen the very first night he was here. He asked me to tell him a story. I couldn’t really think of anything. So I told him I would tell him this African story I had learned 20 years ago. I really wasn’t sure where it had come from or why I was telling it. But as I told it, he began to sing! It turned out to be a Mende story he knew from his childhood. It was an astonishing moment of—just how did he end up in this house in lower Manhattan hearing a Mende story that was forgotten in the war, and out of his mind came a song that he heard in his grandmother’s village? It was about two brothers who through the power of resilience, imagination and song really saved their lives.

That is sort of what happened to us. I learned not to ask certain questions because I wanted him to be able to discover that person he was before the war. And for those muscles of childhood and happiness to get strong enough that when he did tell his story it would not overwhelm him and become the only thing that he related to in his identity, but that he could relate to his goodness.

His appreciation for me, his growing trust, really introduced me to a trust in my own goodness, which was a great gift. There’s this deep connection [between us] that is unexplainable. It began a conversation, which still goes on today. We learn from each other the importance of storytelling—the importance of speaking one’s truth.

Storytelling is also a form of healing. Laura, can you talk about your work and the role of storytelling in conflict resolution?
LS: What I know about storytelling is what gave me the inner courage to recognize the strength of Ishmael’s basic goodness, as something more transformative and powerful than the incident of being turned into a killer.

I’m a storyteller and committed to the benefits of that activity in itself. That process really keeps alive very important capacities one needs to envision a future, to overcome hopelessness, to have a sense to live with what’s happened in your life and go forward. It allows people to move beyond fixation on victimization.

But there is a second half to the storytelling. We live by the stories we believe. We are dealing with an activity that is kind of the very nature of mind itself. So learning how to listen, and really understand the deeper ramifications of how a story can actually separate, destroy, manipulate, or how a story can liberate, comfort, heal and open is a really important discernment.

I work for an environmental group, I work at peacemaking, and I work in tolerance and try to awaken and activate this capacity for flexible thinking for generosity, compassion and awareness.

One thing that struck me was when Ishmael talked about the fragility of happiness during the war.
LS: During the first three months after Ishmael arrived, I had taken him with me on many tours. He heard a lot of stories. He rode a bicycle, he went swimming, he met friends and so forth. It was a chance for him to have a taste of his childhood and strengthen that child inside him. He said to me, “I thought that my joy had been destroyed, but I’ve had such a great three months and I recognize that joy is still inside of me. It wasn’t destroyed.” And I was almost dancing around the house. I said, “Well, I think Ishmael, that you will really live, you will not only survive, but that joy will get stronger and stronger.”

I work with many kids from Sierra Leone who have had hands or arms amputated or were rape victims—great suffering. They are the most cheerful people and the most committed to helping other people make a decent life. They are such an inspiration—they have managed to take this hell and transform it into medicine. I feel I am so lucky to be exposed to this.

We sometimes try to hide from ourselves and from children the truth of death, the consequences of things, and the obstacles that come up in life, but we are willing to promote wars. These kids know something so intrinsic about the preciousness of living and the truth of how easy it is to be drawn into suffering and violence and how hard it is to get out of it. They have something to teach us, to liberate us, actually. I find it immensely interesting that right now we are all interested in this. It’s not unrelated to the environment and it’s not unrelated to social issues. It is at the core. We have taken our children and put them as fodder on the front lines. What does that mean? That we are willing to eliminate that which is a potential for the future for diamonds or a story that one government tells about somebody else.

Ishmael, you recently returned to Sierra Leone for the documentary Bling. What impact did this trip have on you?
IB: [One of the things that struck me] was how there are a tremendous number of young people recovering from the war with not a lot of options. The government is not doing much to help, and the political corruption that caused the war is still there today. I’m starting a non-profit foundation to raise money to give opportunities for those children [so they] have the option to move on with their lives.

For more information about Laura and Ishmael visit and The Ishmael Beah Foundation ( will be launched this year.