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Winning Hearts-- and Homes

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Winning Hearts -- and Homes

For African War Victims, Visit for Care Becomes Lasting Stay

Mariama Conteh and Bintu Amara say evening prayers with Deannie Elliott, who is seeking to become their legal guardian. (Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

By Sylvia Moreno

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 26, 2002; Page A01

AUBURN HILLS, Mich.--Joe's Crab Shack here, just down the road from Michigan horse country, is most any kid's dream of the perfect place to go for dinner. There are slides and swings outside and wacky rubber sharks hanging from the ceiling inside, crayons and paper place mats to color, and popcorn shrimp and fruit freezes on the menu.

It's noisy and the waiters are cheerful and entertaining, so Clay and Deannie Elliott have brought the two new members of their family to this restaurant to have fun. But the girls' thoughts float far afield.

"You want to see what the rebels did in Freetown?" the 10-year-old asks as she holds down a french fry on the table with her left hand, wielding a butter knife with her right.

"When they cut hands, they say, 'Short sleeve' " -- she points the blade about a half-inch from the end she holds with her fingers -- " 'or long sleeve?' " She moves the blade farther toward the other end of the fry.

It's true, adds the girl sitting across the table. The 17-year-old points at her own mutilated arm and prosthetic hand. "Short sleeve" is a biceps-level amputation. "Long sleeve" -- the one she got -- is an ax whack close to the wrist that severs the hand but leaves more of the arm.

As the adults grow uncomfortable, the younger girl quickly sketches the figure of a body on her place mat. "What you want cut?" asks the girl, who is missing most of her left leg. "A hand or a foot?"

Told to stop this gruesome talk, she bursts into laughter. This isn't funny, she's told.

She shrugs. "The rebels already did it."

They did it to the two girls in January 1999 in their native West African country of Sierra Leone, in a practice designed to inspire fear and compliance among villagers.

Since then, these girls and several other children from Sierra Leone have been on an odyssey: from a teeming amputee camp in Freetown, the capital of their country, to Dulles International Airport in the fall of 2000. Then to Staten Island, N.Y., where the group lived together for 20 months, receiving prostheses and medical care and sharing prayers, meals and chores.

This month it came time for the members of the ad hoc village to go their separate ways. These girls, Bintu and Mariama, were the first to leave, landing here in the Midwest.

In March, the children -- as well as two adult male amputees and two female chaperones -- were granted political asylum in the United States. They can live here legally for the rest of their lives. How they will live is being decided.

The children's U.S. sponsors want them to be placed permanently with loving adoptive families, and their close friends and social worker agree that that would be best. But whether the goal can be reached is still unclear. So far, the government of Sierra Leone has approved the transfer of the children's guardianship to U.S. families only for the purpose of continuing their prosthetic medical care until they turn 18.

"Their parents do not support adoption. . . . They do not want a situation where the children do not remember they have parents," said Shirley Gbujama, Sierra Leone's minister of social welfare, gender and children's affairs, who helped choose the group of amputees to come to the United States for medical attention.

"Adoption would mean changing their names and having a whole new perspective in their lives," she said.

The children are testament to a brutal civil war that gripped their country for a decade, and they have made it clear that for now, at least, they have no desire to return -- whether or not they have surviving parents. One child declared during a therapy session that she would eat poison if forced to return.

"I do not want to return to Sierra Leone because the [Revolutionary United Front] rebels raped me and my mom. Many of them," states one child's affidavit in her asylum application to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Then the rebels called me and cut off my arm with a machete. They cut my mom's arm off too."

Reads another child's affidavit: "I do not want to return to Sierra Leone because on April 12, 1998, the rebels killed both of my parents and chopped off both of my hands. After they did this, I told them to just kill me. They said, 'We are not killing you. . . . ' I was 12 years old."

The statements were translated into English from the children's native Krio.

This month, Bintu Amara, 10, and Mariama Conteh, 17, arrived in Ortonville, Mich., to live with Clayton and Virdeen "Deannie" Elliott, who have petitioned for guardianship and want to adopt them.

That doesn't mean the girls have forgotten, or forsaken, their past.

On her third day with the Elliotts, Mariama, who lost her left hand and almost lost her right to the rebels, wrote a letter in a catechism she had received from a Staten Island Catholic school.

"Dear Jesus, I thank you to save my life. And I want you to take care of my family in Sierra Leone."

Evolution of a Mission

The journey for these young war victims started out as a short-term goodwill venture to fit them with artificial arms and legs. It evolved into much, much more.

Within weeks of their arrival, they testified before a congressional subcommittee on Capitol Hill and brought members of the United Nations to tears when they spoke at a hearing sponsored by the secretary general for children and armed conflict. They appeared before the New York City Council. And they marched on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to protest the purchase of "conflict diamonds," stones sold by the Sierra Leone rebels to buy weapons and fuel the civil war.

Last year, some of them returned to Washington to speak at the National Press Club in favor of the Clean Diamond Trade Act, sponsored by Reps. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). The youngsters were featured in newspapers and on television broadcasts across the nation.

The group became a cause celebre for charitable groups, medical organizations and other businesses on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, even attracting former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to a "celebrity picnic" last summer on Staten Island to raise money for their living costs.

"How could you not have a great deal of sympathy or empathy to think that a child's arm would be cut off for nothing other than to instill fear?" said Thomas J. Scotto, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association of New York City, a prime sponsor of the picnic, which collected $70,000 for the amputees.

To date, an estimated $250,000 has been raised for their support and care, about $100,000 of it in cash, including $5,000 from a foundation sponsored by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie. The rest was given in in-kind services: Rooms and meals were supplied by the Staten Island Hotel, and apartments and extensive medical and dental care by Staten Island University Hospital. Artificial limbs and rehabilitation therapy were donated by ARIMED, a prosthesis manufacturer in Brooklyn, as were legal services by a Manhattan immigration lawyer who worked on their political asylum cases.

One of the Rotarians donated a van, and a retired corrections officer volunteered to drive the group around New York. Wagner College of Staten Island gave a full scholarship to one of the adult amputees, and three parochial or private schools in the borough opened their doors to the children. At Our Lady Help of Christians School, where all the children were beloved by the principal and teachers, students sobbed at a pizza and Italian cookie send-off for Bintu and Mariama.

"These kids could cross a line and touch people, so they support them," said Joe Mandarino, an adviser to Gift of Limbs for Disabled Children, a nonprofit branch of the Rotary Club of Staten Island. It and the Brooklyn Rotary sponsored the group in New York, and the Rotarians were instrumental in seeking political asylum for the group.

"When you see someone who projects such happiness and spirituality, you see they have something that we wish we had," Mandarino said. "We were just a bunch of people who thought we were doing a good deed and that we'd be out of this in three months."

The Family Is Dispersed

Instead, it had been a year and a half by the time Bintu and Mariama were toasted by the Staten Island Rotarians and others at their goodbye party. The party, just before they left for Michigan, marked the beginning of the group's breakup. By then, the children hardly resembled those who had stepped off the jetway at Dulles on Sept. 21, 2000, silent, wide-eyed and malnourished.

Their English had come along, and in many ways they had adapted to the middle-class American life of their New York benefactors.

Mariama had discovered that she "loves" Chinese food, and Bintu had learned to thank the waiter in Chinese, politely saying, "Xie xie" (shyeh-shyeh).

They had found a sense of family, gathering around the television to watch the Disney Channel's "Lizzy McGuire" and "The Proud Family" or TBS reruns of "Family Matters." They still craved and knew how to cook their native dishes of cassava and spicy peanut soup with rice, but they were happy with Frosted Flakes for breakfast and pizza bagels for lunch.

They had all received some schooling, and most had mastered the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. They now could sing "God Bless America," as well as Sierra Leone's national anthem and national pledge.

Like American youngsters, they had their idols.

"Next Halloween, I want to be Britney Spears," Bintu declared within days of arriving in Michigan. "No more princess or angel. If no Britney Spears, then Jennifer Lopez."

On her first Halloween ever -- last year on Staten Island -- Bintu had dressed as an angel in a white gown and a halo and carried a silver wand. Mariama had been a princess in a pink gown. No more of that kid stuff for her, either.

"I want to be Supergirl for Halloween," said Mariama, referring to a song on the soundtrack of one of her favorite movies, "The Princess Diaries."

They also had their favorite pop groups.

At the goodbye party, given in the elegant home of Nancy and Andrew Passeri, president and chief executive of Staten Island University Hospital, the girls danced with abandon as a Destiny's Child song boomed from the stereo:

I'm a survivor,

I'm not gon' give up

I'm not gon' stop,

I'm gon' work harder

I'm a survivor, I'm gonna make it

I'm a survivor, keep on survivin'

Bintu wore what she called her "Cinderella dress," white organza over pale yellow material that tied in the back. She had seen the Disney movie.

Mariama, who had arrived in the United States frail, reed thin and suffering from chronic osteomyelitis, an infection of the bones caused by bacteria in her wounds, was tall and regal in her long, black flowered skirt and fuchsia top.

Damba Koroma, 10, her left arm cut off below the elbow, wore a short black skirt, open-toed platform heels and red polish on her toenails. Fatu Koroma, 11, in a blue jumper and white lacy anklet socks, held her left arm and the prosthetic device on her right above her head as her hips gyrated to "Survivor."

Sheku Mansaray, 16, who lost both hands to the rebels, was too shy to dance, hanging back in cool-looking shades.

One of the younger children, Mohamed Conteh, 6 -- whose left leg was destroyed below the knee and whose right leg was badly fractured when rebels bombed his house when he was 2 -- ran and laughed among the throng of well-wishers, all of them affluent Staten Island patrons.

"No one thought Mohamed would survive, but he did by the grace of God," states Mohamed's affidavit for political asylum. " . . . He has not been himself since the incident. He has been traumatized. . . . In fact, he started talking the day he received his prosthesis. Since he came to the U.S., he is now a joyful . . . boy."

The other little one, Memunatu Mansaray, 5, flitted from guest to guest, many of whom couldn't resist giving the beautiful child a hug or kiss.

Before she left for the United States, the government of Sierra Leone had used Memuna, as she is called, as a poster child to show what the brutal civil war had done to Sierra Leonean children. Pictures taken at the signing of the peace accord in Lome, Togo, in May 1999 show her in a dress made of African cloth, with a stump of right arm.

It took three more peace agreements before the Revolutionary United Front rebels laid down their weapons at the end of 2000 and the civil war was declared over. The country's first postwar elections were held this month.

Memuna was shot in January 1999 when her family ran into a mosque to hide from the rebels. Her grandmother was killed and her mother fatally wounded, dying three months later. Memuna's shattered right arm had to be amputated just below her shoulder. But at the goodbye party, she wore a prosthetic arm that concealed her stump, a bright pink dress, dainty white tights and silvery patent shoes.

The gaiety that night on Staten Island belied the turmoil the group faced in saying goodbye to Bintu and Mariama. The children and adults -- brutalized, some orphaned and all uprooted from their country -- had created their own family, supported by an extended group of New York and Washington supporters they called "auntie" or "uncle."

Like any family, they bickered, they clashed, they laughed, and they loved one another. They also depended on each other: A man with one hand ironed the clothes of another who had none. The girls worked in pairs in the kitchen because between them they had the two hands they needed to cook.

"I feel sad," said 11-year-old Fatu in the last hours before the two girls flew out of New York. "But I feel good because Bintu and Mariama be together."

"The kids, we, all come here together," said Tommy Foday, a double amputee who at 50 was the oldest of the group. They all called him Pa Tommy, just as they would any village elder in Sierra Leone. Foday had stormed out of the group's last therapy session, tears filling his eyes.

"To get the education, to get the new life, they go to another state," he said in frustration at the breaking up of the group and at their inability to do anything about it. "Anyway, no way to do. We have to take patience. No way to do; we have to take patience."

Many months ago, there had been hope that the group could stay together and live as a unit indefinitely, their sponsors say. But that seemed too hard to accomplish. The idea of putting the children in foster care, by making them wards of New York City, was considered but quickly discarded. Adoption, or at least the guardianship that the Sierra Leone government has agreed to, seemed the best option.

Psychologist Louise Abitbol, senior director of the Staten Island Child Advocacy Center, said it was unfortunate that the decision to start placing the children with adoptive families took so long. But, she said, "what I'm trying to do is focus on the future and not the past."

Beginning a New Life

That future arrived for Bintu and Mariama this month, two days after their farewell party. It began when they left New York City for rural Michigan and the home of the Elliotts.

Her heart, Mariama said before they flew out, felt "small and tight."

The Elliotts' lives had intersected with those of the Sierra Leonean children through Deannie's brother, actor Chad Everett, who played physician Joe Gannon on the 1970s TV drama "Medical Center." He had met the children in October during a fundraising run on Staten Island for another Rotary Club project called Gift of Life, which brings Third World children with congenital heart disease to the United States for surgery.

Clay Elliott, a corporate pilot, and Deannie Elliott, retired from Ameritech Publishing, are both 56 and childless, and had considered adopting children some years ago. Last fall, Everett called them to see if they were still interested. He told them about the two youngest Sierra Leonean children he had met, and the Elliotts, who own a four-passenger Cessna 182, flew to Staten Island in November to meet the group.

The couple, along with Mandarino, of the Staten Island Rotary Club, spent a day with all the children, taking them to the zoo and then out for pizza. But the Elliotts did not wind up taking in the youngest children. As they were about to say goodbye, Bintu took Deannie Elliott by the hand, led her into a back hallway in the group's apartment, looked up at her and asked: "Will you adopt me?"

Mariama had followed them into the hallway. "And will you adopt Mariama?" Bintu asked.

The couple talked about it on their flight back to Michigan. "It was a slam-dunk," Deannie Elliott said. "We wanted the children."

In early January, the girls traveled to Ortonville to visit the Elliotts for two weeks to see if they all thought the arrangement would work. Afterward, they stayed in touch by telephone. In May, the Elliotts' attorney gave the couple the go-ahead to bring the girls to Michigan so they could be present in court on a guardianship application. Adoption, the Elliotts hope, will come later on.

Mandarino and other members of the Rotary Club of Staten Island are headed to Sierra Leone later this year to establish a Gift of Life project there. He said he intends to talk to the children's parents or next of kin in hopes of persuading them to relinquish their rights and make the children legally available for adoption.

"I'm sure it will happen; I have to believe that it will," Deannie Elliott said. "We want them to be adopted, for the permanency and for all the perks that come with that."

Benefits are what the impoverished parents or next of kin of these children cannot provide. "They love them, but they don't have the facilities to care for them, and they haven't seen them for over a year," said Gbujama, of the Sierra Leone government.

In their first few days in Michigan, Bintu and Mariama were already enjoying their new life in the lush, rolling horse country, where Scotch pines tower overhead and fragrant lilac bushes grow wild. On May 12, two days after arriving, Mariama celebrated her 17th birthday and Deannie celebrated her first Mother's Day.

Each girl has her own bedroom with a queen-size bed, an antique wooden dresser and white plantation-style shutters that open to a view of a green, sloping lawn. The Elliotts own a four-level house, two dogs, two cats, two four-wheel-drive vehicles, two airplanes and a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle 500-horsepower race car. Back home, Bintu's and Mariama's families owned virtually nothing.

Still, the rest of the group from Sierra Leone, as well as other friends, advised the girls before they left New York not to disregard their heritage.

"You are all Africans; don't forget that," said the Rev. Josephat Rungu, a Methodist minister on Staten Island who is from Kenya. "Don't forget where you came from -- I don't care what anybody tells you -- and respect the family you are going to live with."

One of the amputees, Muctarr Jalloh, 27, whose right hand and right ear were chopped off by rebels and who is now studying at Wagner College of Staten Island to be a social worker, counseled the girls, too.

"We have another war to conquer, and that's back home," he told them. "We have many more amputees, and we cannot forget them. Everybody's fighting to be here. This is a blessing. As they say back home, make hay while there's sunshine. I always said if I got my education, I will go back to Africa."

Mariama, who never attended school in Sierra Leone, spent part of her stay on Staten Island in a fourth-grade class. This past school year, she stayed home and was tutored two days a week. Bintu, who will be 11 in August, spent time in third- and fourth-grade classes. For now, Deannie Elliott said, she plans to home-school the girls to boost their academic skills. But that won't start for a few months.

"I want us to get to know each other as a family before we get into schooling," she said.

She told the girls that they will search for an African food store in Michigan and that she wants them to teach her how to cook their favorite dishes. She asked Bintu to show her how to make the braids, with extensions, that both girls wear. She also said she and her husband want to find African American cultural venues and events in Detroit or perhaps Flint, which is closer to Ortonville, to visit or attend with the girls.

"But no matter what I do, let's face it, they live with two white people," Deannie Elliott said. "But we'll pull it together. We'll have a cross section, and that's not a bad thing to go into the world with if they're going to be living here."

Bintu and Mariama have been on many long and difficult journeys in their young lives. They came to this country to receive new limbs. Now, in Ortonville, they are exploring new lives.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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This just shows how brutal and acinine that conditions remain in many parts of Africa. It's a shame that these ancient forms of punishment (punishment for WHAT?/?) continues to go on.

We need to wake up and do something about this, not just read about it every day and let it continue to happen :mad3:

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