As nine-year-old Kimmie Weeks and his mother huddled desperately on a cold concrete floor, he prayed they would survive.
While trapped in one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, Weeks learned that survival was all he could hope for.
“It started with an explosion, and then there was gunfire everywhere… People started to run into their homes for shelter,” Weeks said. “My mom and I were on the floor, everyday missiles and rockets were falling on the houses around us.”
And while Weeks did survive to tell the story during a recent Toronto visit, the same cannot be said for the 250,000 Liberians who perished in the 1989 civil war.
“Imagine that feeling of knowing that people you’ve grown up with, people you’ve spent your life with, are next door, and they’re being killed,” he said.
Liberia is one of Africa’s most impoverished nations. Established in 1847 by former African-American slaves, the country was thrust into civil war after years of ethnic tension between the Americo-Liberians and indigenous African tribes.
Fourteen years of civil war left one in 17 dead, over one million displaced in refugee camps and 1.7 million living in poverty. To many, these numbers are just a statistic. To Weeks, they are a reality.
“We had gone from normalcy to suddenly being in the midst of civil war,” Weeks said. “People were getting killed, women were getting raped, houses were being burned and children were being used as soldiers.”
The nation-wide destruction left Liberia’s economy and social infrastructure in ruins. Disease was rampant, and Weeks battled cholera when he was 10 while living in a refugee camp for those displaced by the war.
One day, when severely sick and unresponsive, he was declared dead and his body was tossed into a pile of corpses. His mother, refusing to believe he had passed, dug threw the heap of lifeless bodies, found Weeks, and managed to revive him.
“All I remember is my body being shaken, and I open my eyes and I look up and my mom’s there, and all I see are tears and grief in her face,” Weeks said. “I will never forget that image.”
Weeks said the near death experience inspired him to dedicate his life to helping child victims of poverty, war, malnutrition and disease. At 13, he started Liberia’s first child rights advocacy organization, Voice of the Future, Inc.
By 15, he was working with UNICEF and his newly founded group the Children’s Disarmament Campaign to disarm the country’s estimated 20,000 soldiers.
In 1998, Weeks published a controversial report about the Liberian government’s training of child soldiers. The Liberian government arrested his classmates, colleagues and friends, then ordered his assassination. He was forced to flee to the U.S under political asylum.
Recently in Toronto, Weeks spoke at a small house gathering at Danforth and Coxwell avenues to tell attendees how they can get involved by spreading awareness or donating money or resources to the organization.
Danish Ahmed, who held the event at his house, said he was happy to contribute to raising awareness of these issues.
“Because I’ve been so blessed, so gifted and have conscious choice, now let me look at how I can help others become more conscious and appreciative, and help them transcend the challenges of their life and transform the quality of the world,” Ahmed said.
Some, such as Danielle Fortier, originally from Montreal and now living in the west end of Toronto, said while it’s easy to feel distant from Africa’s problems, it’s important for those in developed countries to contribute however they can.
“If we think Africa’s problem is not ours, we’re getting it wrong,” Fortier said. “We are all inter-dependent. If we don’t act on that, then their problems will become ours.”
This is what Weeks stresses everyday, by telling people they can indeed make a difference, much like he did.
Today, Weeks is executive director of Youth Action International, an organization he founded to help over 100,000 children in six post-war African countries, by building schools, libraries, science labs and computer centres in impoverished nations, as well as teaching sustainable skills such as farming.
An internationally acclaimed activist, Weeks has won multiple honours such as the Brick Award and the National Excellence Award for his work in raising awareness of humanitarian issues. He has said he may run for president of Liberia in 2017.
“I believe changing the world is no longer about the government or big organizations, it’s about individuals who are able to say I will stand up, and I will make change happen,” Weeks said. “Real change happens with one person.”