(From Natalie Morales, TODAY National Correspondent)
As I was ordering my tall skim latte 2 weeks ago at Starbucks, my eyes... always looking for something new...wandered to Starbucks' CD collection, then its latest contribution to the greater global good, a new book called "A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" by Ishmael Beah. I picked it up and started reading, then immediately had to buy it. It was certainly a long way from this Starbucks on Park Avenue to this young boy's tragic story in Sierra Leone during that country's civil war in the 1990's.
When Ishmael was 12, his family and town were decimated by rebel forces. Ishmael got away and for a year he wandered and witnessed the most atrocious acts that continue to haunt his every waking moment. At 13, he was picked up and made to be one of them -- the rebel attackers. What followed was hell on earth that seems unimaginable to most of us, and unthinkable when you look at your own kids and all they are so fortunate to have. Ishmael learned to kill, and he learned to laugh at the bloodied bodies he would then stomp on with the other kids-- all brainwashed. But Ishmael was one of the lucky ones because he was rescued by UNICEF in 1998. He was sent here to the U.S. and after a lot of rehabilitation and learning how to forgive himself, he was able to go on and graduate high school, and in 2004 he graduated from Oberlin College.
The memoir opens with what could be a typical scene at any high school, though this one in NYC and the conversation is disturbing. Ishmael's friends ask him why he had to leave Sierra Leone. He says simply, because there is war. They ask, "Did you witness some of the fighting?" He says, "Everyone did." They press on, "You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?" He says, "Yes, all the time." To which his friends reply, "Cool." Teenagers, perhaps, but they could not know at the time all that he did to survive, to be able to be in the hallways of a New York city high school. What a faraway land that war seemed... and to this day, according to UNICEF, there are still an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the more than 50 conflicts around the world. But that war in Sierra Leone, brought to your and my nearest Starbucks where $2 dollars of each book purchased will go to UNICEF -- which saved Ishmael's and so many other young children's lives.
Coincidentally, as I am now midway through the book, last week I read an article about it in The New York Times (March 10) and was glad to learn it has had great success in sales and Ishmael Beah is generating so much buzz. Perhaps it was a risky choice for Starbucks, but it proves perhaps we are hungering for more depth and a greater understanding of what is happening around the world.
I can only imagine what the once boy soldier must now think when he sees people buying their lattes or cappuccinos and a copy of his memoir -- thankfully, he has come a long long way.