Bernstein, N. (13 May, 2007). “Taking the War Out of a Child Soldier,” The New York Times
This article details the story of Salifou Yankene, an Ivory Coast teenager who escaped civil war and forced conscription in a rebel army to begin a new life in New York. It is a story marked by an intense blend of legal circumstances, complex psychological summersaults, and the small community of committed people who dedicated themselves to helping Salifou weather it all.
There are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, says Bernstein. Awareness of their plight is now on the rise, thanks in large part to the work of human rights organizations and the recently published best-selling memoir by Ishmael Beah (Long Way Gone), himself a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. But in the rare cases in which these children make it to America to file as refugees, their way into a new life presents its own kind of struggle.
Bernstein explains: “Their violent pasts pose hard questions: Should they be legally barred from asylum as persecutors or protected as victims? How can they be healed, and who will help them?”
Salifou’s father and sister were murdered when he was 12. By 15 he was conscripted by rebel troops who cut off his brother’s hand. After a miraculous escape involving considerable risk on the part of his mother and a mysterious foreigner called “Father William,” he made it to Geneva then overseas to Kennedy International Airport where, with a fake Swiss passport, he told customs officials “I want to make refugee.” But Salifou, then 17, found himself detained in a New Jersey jail as authorities tried to sort out his plea. Wracked by guilt, anger, and depression, he pleaded with them to send him back. Just days after his 18th birthday, immigration authorities released him onto a street corner in Lower Manhattan. “They say, ‘You free to go,'” he recalled. “I say, ‘Go where?'” His lawyer, Elliot Kaye, offered Salifou a couch in his Brooklyn apartment.
It is not surprising that Salifou has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In Ivory Coast he was made his captors coerced him into looting, grabbing new conscripts, beating civilians, and shooting and people. Though he says he never knowingly killed anyone, his experience prompted immigration officials to label him a persecutor of violent war, and therefore liable for deportation. Alan Page, the judge for Salifou’s case, disputed this interpretation and continues to insist that, were Salifou deported, he would likely face jail, torture, or death in the Ivory Coast.
But Salifou’s ability to begin a new life in New York is beset by difficulties of another sort. Upon his initial immigration detainment he was evaluated as being a mental health risk. But uncertainties about his age meant he was not permitted to stay in a hospital pediatric ward, an adult immigration detention center also refused to hold him, and so he was placed in a county jail in western New Jersey. On top of this his deportation appeal remains pending.
His lawyer, Elliot, together with Laura Simms, who had helped Mr. Beah, have persistently advocated for Salifou and sought to help him get the therapy he needs. The community of support they have formed around him, including a friendship with Mr. Beah, makes up the backbone of this effort. Salifou now lives in a Harlem apartment with an interpreter who is himself an African refugee.
He has had no contact with his mother in Ivory Coast, and fears the rebels his former captors have punished or killed her on account of his escape.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Were you aware of the phenomenon of child soldiers around the world?
2. Do you know any refugee families who have experienced similar situations?
3. What conditions made Salifou’s arrival in America difficult? Are these surprising?
4. What resources did he need?
5. What kind of challenges do you think Salifou will continue to encounter on his journey?
When the realities of war and politics are embodied in the lives of teenagers the result is heartbreaking. If America is to continue to be a place of refuge for oppressed peoples then the bureaucratic challenge of receiving children such as Salifou will have to be met with sensitivity and discernment. Moreover, qualified advocates and caring communities are as vital for such teenagers as they are difficult to find and sustain. One cannot assume that American culture will bring immediate and ready relief to anyone, much less a former child soldier beset by incredible pain and trauma.
Christopher S. Yates
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