From September 28 to October 1st, the city of Ottawa hosted the One Young World 2016 Summit.  I had the honor and incredible opportunity of attending the summit as a scholar, and have since proudly graduated to become a One Young World Ambassador.  For those who aren’t already familiar with the summit, One Young World was founded in 2009 by David Jones and Kate Robertson to bring together the brightest young leaders from around the world, and empower them to make lasting connections with the ultimate intention of creating positive change.

Empowered was absolutely how I felt during those three days in Ottawa, where I was at one with so many young changemakers from across the globe.  I was inspired by their energy, courage, and passion.  I shared their dreams and aspirations.  We were unified by the common goal of ultimately making this world a better place.

So here I am sharing a glimpse of my One Young World experience: the Mental Health session that I found, to put it quite simply, both mind-blowing and emotionally devastating.

The session opened with a reading from the spoken word artist Hussain Manawer, whose piece, Mother’s Tongue, spoke of depression and mental illness in a way that reminded me deeply of my own struggles:

"I went to war without recruiting an army,” he began and at that very moment, my mind drifted to what seemed like a parallel universe: Hussain's performance echoed on one side, and the images of children orphaned by Ebola whom I had been working to help through my NGO, Le Projet Ecoute, were on the other.

Amongst them was Gnalen, whose face appeared before me as I listened to Hussain's words.  It was as if I could feel her presence right beside me.  She recently turned 11 years old, and she has already lived through more heartache than my own young adult heart could ever have sustained.  Both her parents and baby brother were taken during the latest Ebola outbreak in our shared home country of Guinea.  Gnalen had fallen sick too, but miraculously pushed through and got better; she is such a strong and brave little girl.  She is now the eldest of 8 other orphans who live under the care of her aunt and uncle, and spends most of her day helping taking care of the younger children.

“Lone soldier must not sail through the night / After hours, these waters are forbidden.”

Hussain’s warning cry brought me back to her: courageous Gnalen.  When we met, I was told that she had terrible nightmares every single night; the local clinic couldn’t stop them, so the traditional doctor was trying to find a remedy.  They told me that she screamed her mother’s name in her nightmares.

“I want the strongest soldier from the land / I want the Queen from the castle [...] I request for her to join me, but boy, this request lays much deeper / Her name is my mother.”

I was entangled in Hussain’s pain, and in Gnalen’s pain, left struggling against my own tears as the poet choked on his words.

“Mommy it’s me / I have been battling demons at night in my sleep / Mom, it’s me.. Je ne sais pas pourquoi?”

The poet’s words rung not only as a confessional, but as a battle cry, and in each line, I imagined Gnalen wondering why she was one of the few kids her age experiencing this dark and lonely grief.

I wished I had an answer to give that sweet little girl, I had none.  I don’t know why she got sick, why her parents died, or why her nightmares refused to stop.  But what I did realize in that very moment was my own privilege that I could never truly understand her suffering.  At that moment, I was confronted with choices: to feel sorry for Gnalen and move on with my life, or to admire her resilience and actively help her the best way I possibly could in her journey to healing.  I chose the latter, aware of how fortunate I was to work in a field that allowed for such action.

"Listen / If you can hear me and you’re in a war, then your battle is not over."

Nodding in time with the call to action, my mind drifted again to another child: Nobia.  She was the first baby to survive Ebola after being born to an infected mother who tragically passed, rendering her an orphan.  She spent the first month of her life in an isolation ward at an Ebola treatment center in Conakry, Guinea, and on the day that she was released to a member of her extended family, Guinea was able to start its official 42-day countdown towards being able to declare itself free of Ebola.  Her survival spoke deeply to me as proof that sometimes grit and resilience could be found in the tiniest package.

I had read an article once about this baby girl some time earlier.  They called her the ‘warrior baby’, one whose survival was nothing short of miraculous.  Whilst I agree that Nobia’s fate was secured through personal fortitude, I knew that there was so much more to her than that: her strength was complimented by the strangers who wore yellow suits, thick boots and gloves – the ones who harnessed their wisdom and courage to save her.  She would never know the names of each soldier in her own personal army who armored her for battle, but in that moment, they were the proxy for the parents she no longer had.

Whilst I am unsure of how much ease or misfortune Nobia will encounter as she ages – after all, life is oftentimes harder for orphans – I felt heartened in that moment that she would know ample love and care in her lifetime.  After all, in her darkest hour, hope had found her.

Gnalen and Nobia were but two of the thousands of children orphaned by Ebola in my country, but I felt that One Young World had given me a greater understanding of what I, in my position of relative privilege, could do to support them. And perhaps because words are his great gift, it was a paraphrasing of Hussain’s words that I most dearly wanted to share with them:  “None of your stories end here. It’s only a chapter that has finished; so together let’s write act two, scene one, and let’s bring some new characters into it.”

But even more so, I want to thank these children for the purpose they have given me.  It is my mission to become worthy of being a new character in their life stories, and to support their emotional growth and mental health needs over time.

In a world in which so much misfortune exists that allows us to become desensitized, it’s truly a privilege to care.

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