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Former child soldier uses storytelling to heal from trauma

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 | 11:24 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The first night Laura Simms put her newly adopted son, Ishmael Beah, to bed in her New York City apartment, she was a bit unsure of how to act.

As she said goodnight and began to close the door of his room, her son called her back. He wanted to hear a story.

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"Where he comes from, a storyteller is a very revered position. He didn't expect it in New York," Simms said.

Beah and Simms met in 1996 at a UN conference on children affected by war. After 18 months of cutting through red tape, Simms was finally able to bring the teenage Beah to live with her.

The bond the pair forged the first night over a story from Beah's own culture foretold the important role storytelling would play in their future together.

Simms, a longtime professional storyteller, continued to tell her new son stories starting with more from his own culture. Little by little, this helped Beah to remember stories he heard from before the war in his village where oral tradition was so important. Stories he had heard before he was recruited into the Sierra Leone government army.

"As a child growing up, we listened to stories a lot. It's how we learned to behave," Beah said.

Eventually, storytelling helped Beah heal from the trauma he experienced fighting and encouraged him to tell his own story in his now best-selling book "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

Beah and Simms told their story at Jesse Hall on Wednesday to an audience that was diverse in age and race to kick off "Telling Stories, Changing Lives," a program about the healing power of story telling in the lives of those affected by violence.

The pair spoke informally, telling several different anecdotes about their first experiences as a mother and son, from the awkward first day when the airline lost Beah's luggage and Simms forgot to buy food and had to order Chinese.

"This is a real love story," Simms said of her relationship with her son.

Carolyn Henry attended the event with her children, two of whom are adopted from Sierra Leone's neighboring country, Liberia.

"Where Ishmael came from, and is today, is inspiring," Henry said.

"It's important for our boys to understand the culture they come from."

Event organizer Milbre Burch called the pair a "found family."

"It is such a bizarre set of circumstances that are hard to relate. Getting the story from someone who actually went through it is an interesting perspective," audience member Jeff Smiley said.

"Telling Stories, Changing Lives" features several events around Columbia and will run through Saturday. For more information go to kindcrone.com.


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Comments

Judy Deriso February 19, 2009 | 9:51 a.m.

Excellent article.

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