The Story of Ishmael: Boyhood Brings Two Worlds Together

A young man from Sierra Leone, a group of American high school kids, and the one thing they have in common.

Nov 9, 2015
Special Collections: CONNECTING HEARTS
Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah is an author, human rights activist and contributing storyteller for The Moth podcast (NPR)

Ishmael Beah arrived in New York at the age of 17, and enrolled at a local high school. While his fellow students were preoccupied with the typical teenage fixations - clothes, shoes, music - Ishmael was adjusting to a kind of normality he had never before experienced - his background was vastly different to his peers.

In Sierra Leone, Ishmael had served as a child soldier during a civil war, before being rescued by UNICEF and taken in by a woman in New York.  As he told The Moth podcast, Ishmael’s teenage counterparts had a lot of questions. Unaware of his past, they asked: “why doesn’t he act like us?,” “why is he always quiet?” Ishmael jokes that some even believed he must be a royal African prince.

Over the years, Ishmael started making friends, and the healing power of those relationships was what ultimately gave him a fresh start in life. They bonded as New York teenagers do - over rollerblading, checking out new areas and train trips around the city. Ishmael relished these moments - his friends provided a window into what childhood is all about and he couldn't be more thankful. After a weekend of paintballing at a friend’s cabin in upstate New York, his friends were astounded at Ishmael’s skill and tact. “You’re sure you’ve never played paintball before?” they asked. Ishmael just smiled.

Ishmael looks back fondly on these years. During this time, he explains that his friends had invited him into a reality he had never had a chance to experience before - a true childhood. It was so much more than sports or video games that brought Ishmael and his friends together - it was boyhood itself. Though they were from two different worlds, Ishmael and his friends were able to celebrate together the one thing they had in common - being a kid.

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