April 1, 2002 - Register-Guardian: Friendship reaches across the ocean

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Peace Corps Sierra Leone : The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone: April 1, 2002 - Register-Guardian: Friendship reaches across the ocean

By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, April 09, 2002 - 12:39 pm: Edit Post

Friendship reaches across the ocean

Read and comment on this story from the Register-Guardian on the friendship developed over 20 years between Timothy Meinzen of Eugene, OR and Bai Edward Fornah of Sierra Leone (shown above 20 years ago and below this year) at:

Friendship reaches across the ocean*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Friendship reaches across the ocean

By REBECCA NOLAN The Register-Guard

The story of Bai Edward Fornah's journey from war-torn Sierra Leone to a secluded Eugene cul-de-sac is a story of survival, courage, unrelenting optimism and the goodness and generosity of the human heart.

It is also a story about a friendship, a bond 20 years in the making, between Fornah and a one-time Peace Corps volunteer turned high school teacher, Timothy Meinzen of Eugene, who answered an old friend's call for help from half a world away.

Fornah, 31, survived being abandoned by his parents, drug and alcohol addiction and a brush with death when rebels swept through his village, raping, killing and maiming its occupants.

But it took an act of kindness from Meinzen and members of Eugene's Our Redeemer Lutheran Church to help him escape the violent African nation, travel to America and eventually win the chance to study at Eugene Bible College.

The beginning

In 1983, at the age of 22, Tim Meinzen moved into an 8-by-10-foot room on the back porch of a house in Gerihun, in southern Sierra Leone. A recent college grad from Illinois, he and 30 other Peace Corps volunteers were undergoing six weeks of language training before they were released out into the country.

The village children were attracted to the strangers, and Meinzen noticed one boy in particular, a small boy, about 12 or 13 years old, who went by the nickname Edison Dee. It was Edward Fornah. The pair became fast friends.

"He exuded this boyish joy," said Meinzen. "And he had just a little bit of mischief in him."

When the time came for Meinzen to move to his permanent post in Kwellu Junction, he asked Fornah to come along as his translator and cultural guide. In exchange, Meinzen would pay his school fees.

"I was happy to go," said Fornah, whose mother had disappeared and whose father had left the children with their grandmother to seek work in the diamond mines.

"In Africa, people have dreams for their children, but they can't make them come true because of financial handicap," he said. A lucky few are "adopted" by wealthy relatives or friends who give them a push toward a better, more secure life.

When Meinzen and Fornah arrived at the five-room house where they would live for the next two years, two other boys joined them. They formed a family of sorts, sharing chores, meager meals of rice and sauce, and stories about life in their respective cultures.

During the day, Meinzen taught agricultural science and Bible class to students who had no books. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he helped build a school library and started a rabbitry to add protein to the local diet.

He considered the boys family, but Fornah was always his "No. 1 son" and younger brother.

The dark years

When Meinzen returned to the United States in 1985, he delivered Fornah back to his grandmother. The teen was devastated at the departure of his friend.

"That was the worst part of my life," he said. "I had nobody to love me or to care for me. I became involved in some bad games."

He started dancing at nightclubs, drinking and smoking marijuana.

He wrote to Meinzen often, but never spoke of his troubles or his dangerous lifestyle.

Then, in 1990, he had a revelation.

"Someone told me about Jesus," Fornah said. He converted from his native Islam to Christianity. "I wrote to Tim that I was saved."

Three years later, he enrolled in Bible college in the coastal city of Freetown, where his desire to serve others led him to wash the clothing of the pastors and professors. His earlier life of frivolity had left him penniless, so he slept in a classroom and wore the same shirt and trousers every day.

When government officials learned Fornah had not paid his school fees, he was forced out of the college. But the pastors and professors whose clothing he had washed lobbied the college board to waive his tuition. They agreed.

Three years later, he graduated and became a youth pastor and musician in Bo, an inland village where his sister lived with her family.

He helped counsel other young people trapped in a cycle of addiction and poverty.

A brutal war

Sandwiched between Guinea and Liberia on the West African coast, Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries. Life is often brutal in a country, about the size of North Carolina, where 68 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the average life expectancy is 45.6 years.

Civil war broke out in 1991 between the government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front, or RUF. In the ensuing years of violence, tens of thousands were killed, and fully one-third of the country's population fled to neighboring nations.

In the chaos, rebels roamed the country, abducting, raping and killing civilians. A favored technique of terror was to amputate the limbs of villagers with axes and machetes.

"They would ask if you want long sleeve or short sleeve," Fornah said, and the amputation would be at the wrist or above the elbow.

Fornah's father, who had abandoned the family for the diamond mines, was murdered by rebels who cut him limb by limb.

On Jan. 6, 1999, the rebels arrived in Bo. They forced their way into the home of Fornah's sister, where they terrorized the children and threatened to kill her husband. Four men raped Fornah's sister.

Fornah led the family into the bush, where they hid from the rebels for days. But Fornah's responsibilities as a pastor forced him to return the next day.

He scraped together some money in the hopes that, should the rebels return, he could buy his life.

They did return, but the money was not enough to appease the rebel leader. He ordered Fornah to stand and cocked a G3 automatic combat rifle at him. He told Fornah, "You're going to die."

"I was speechless," Fornah said. "I started praying."

But for unexplained reasons, the man did not shoot Fornah. He gestured at the other men and said, "Let's go."

Escape from hell

After two days of traveling by truck and by boat, seeing dead bodies everywhere, he arrived in Freetown and called Meinzen.

"I said, `You have to get me out of this country, man,' " Fornah said. He needed $400 to get to Ghana, where he had family.

Meinzen, by then a husband, father and a teacher at Pleasant Hill High School, had been following the conflict in the news and on the Internet. With the help of his brother and his friend Pat Anderson, Meinzen wired the money to Sierra Leone.

Fornah traveled by sea and road to Ghana, somehow avoiding the armed bandits who roamed the countryside robbing travelers. When he arrived after three days, he immediately registered in a missionary training program.

He paid only a fraction of the fees upfront.

He called Meinzen again. This time, the congregation at Our Redeemer raised more than $500 to pay the tuition.

A year later, Fornah asked Meinzen to bring him to America.

At first, Meinzen was pessimistic about the chances, but Fornah knew it could happen. He was right.

The congregation came through once again, raising $1,000 through church activities. Another group, the Aid Association for Lutherans, matched the amount. Congregant Gayle Dorn volunteered to pay a year's tuition at Eugene Bible College.

Fornah, a single male with no marketable skills, managed to get a three-year student visa after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He landed in Portland last Monday night. The journey was his first by plane.

"If I go to Bible college, I can do for myself," Fornah said. "If I don't go home with money, I want to bring something else. I can speak to the government if I am intellectually sound.

"My home is full of crooks. There is nobody who can stand and say, `This is no good,' " he said.

On Easter Sunday, Bai Edward Fornah addressed the congregation at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, thanking them for the "smiles and your welcome and your financial support."

"I am happy that I am here with you," he told the crowd. "You've done so much that you think you have not done."

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Service; COS - Sierra Leone



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