A compassionate audience listened attentively as child rights activist Kimmie Weeks recounted his traumatic civil war survival that inspired him to found Youth Action International (YAI), an organization that focuses on providing aid for children in the war-torn West African nations of Liberia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone.
Weeks was nine years old when the Liberian civil war erupted, and it was after this experience that he vowed to dedicate his life to helping innocent victims of war.
“I didn’t know how or when [I would be able to], but I knew that I wanted to make change,” Weeks told The Daily after his address.
In 1989, when the war began, young Weeks and his mother were forced out of their home in the capital, Monrovia, by invading rebels. They spent the next six months at a refugee camp, where Weeks first confronted real misery – what he describes as “the poverty that kills.”
At the camp, food was scarce and the refugees ate roots and boiled dirty water to survive. Weeks contracted cholera, and later was almost buried alive. Weeks stressed, however, that he was more affected by the suffering of other children than his own.
“[The children] had nothing to do with the war, but they [were dying] because of it,” Weeks explained to the audience of 75 in the Adams Auditorium.
Weeks then explained that he found Monrovia in ruins when he returned from the refugee camp, and organized a neighbourhood clean-up.
The clean-up was the first step toward Weeks’ decision to begin the YAI. He said that from that point on, “there was no coming back.”
At 13, Weeks co-founded Voices of the Future, Liberia’s first child rights advocacy group. Four years later, he issued a report on the Liberian government’s role in training child soldiers and almost faced assassination. Weeks was then granted political asylum in the United States, where he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, and founded YAI.
YAI has five branches in North America and is currently developing ten more. Each branch has its own specific goal. McGill University’s division – the first in Canada – focuses on the rehabilitation of ex-child soldiers and their reintroduction into society. Concordia is in the process of starting its own chapter.
YAI’s McGill chapter was excited to have Weeks come to speak.
“[Weeks’] story is one of great courage. [His story] invokes inspiration in many and is worth hearing by all,” said YAI VP Communications Matthew Cherian.
Through educational services, vocational training, micro-loans to start small businesses, and healthcare awareness programs, YAI helps victims of war achieve economic independence. Projects include helping Ugandan ex-child soldiers plant a field of rice and teaching young women in the slums of Sierra Leone how to run their own businesses.
Despite Weeks’ bleak portrayal of modern Africa – rife with the devastating effects of AIDS and burdened by inadequate healthcare – Weeks remains positive that poverty can be eliminated.
“I don’t think I’ll end [poverty] on my own,” he said, “but I hope to be the one to set the machine in motion.”