Former child soldier inspires Windsorites on World Refugee Day
One of Emmanuel Jal’s most haunting childhood memories is looking into the eyes of his dying friend and saying “tomorrow, I’m going to eat you.”
Battling starvation in the middle of a civil war, he remembered how his deceased mother used to pray to help him get through the night.
“Then a crow appeared, and my comrade shot it. That was the crow that stopped me from eating my friend,” Jal told the astounded audience at the Capitol Theatre on Thursday.
Bearing both physical and emotional scars, Jal spoke of his harrowing experience as a seven-year-old soldier in Southern Sudan to raise awareness of the plight of millions of refugees.
Now in his mid-30s, the former child soldier, and world renowned hip-hop artist, performed high-energy songs promoting peace to celebrate World Refugee Day at an event organized by the Windsor Essex World Refugee Day Committee.
“It’s celebrating humanity, when you give people fleeing away an opportunity to start again. That shows the strengths of souls staying alive, and those around the world willing to open their hearts to others,” he said.
World Refugee Day was created in 2000 by the United Nations to commemorate the strength and resilience of millions of refugees and celebrate their contributions to local communities.
In a city known for its ethnic diversity, and a country that takes in 10,000 refugees each year, Jal is thankful for the support from those who welcome refugees in.
“Some Canadians came out to support. They are appreciating (the refugees) being in Canada and restoring their dignity, that’s what we’re celebrating,” he said.
Elena Kulaga, an ESL teacher at Collège Boréal in Windsor, came out Thursday with her students — many of whom are refugees.
“Many people may think refugees just come, get their papers and stay here. It’s a huge and hard process to immigrate and become a landed immigrant,” she said.
This was the third World Refugee Day Kulaga has been a part of and she said Jal’s story made a powerful impression.
“One of my daughters is seven. When you think boys at that age have to join the army, wear uniform, carry guns, kill people, see death … I was getting goosebumps.”
Jal escaped the violence of Sudan at the age of 11, with the help of a British aide worker named Emma McCune who smuggled him into Kenya. In his new home, Jal was given the opportunity to attend school and begin his music career. Jal later moved to the United Kingdom before immigrating to Toronto.
The musician, who has performed for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, spoke about how his life has changed since being a child soldier in the 1980s. Jal, who has recorded five studio albums, uses his music to promote his message of peace.
After witnessing many attrocities in his lifetime, Jal has found positivity in all the hatred.
“A forgiving heart is the best gift anyone can give themselves,” he said.
Jocelyn Van Hende, an ESL teacher at the Windsor YMCA, said that combining the stories of suffering with the message of hope was extremely powerful.
She said it is amazing that today is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of refugees who are doctors, lawyers, accountants or business people who have no choice but to flee their homes.
“Refugees are essential to Canada and to Windsor,” Van Hende said. “They are an integral part of our economy and culture, and bring something really valuable to our community.”
While it’s a day of celebration in his new home of Canada, Jal is mindful of his first home in Sudan.
“As I talk now, my country is still at war, and still refugees are running away. Half the population will starve, and 2.5 million people are displaced,” he said.
Jal said that celebrating this international day of peace will shine a spotlight on an area of darkness.
“Whenever we celebrate World Refugee Day, we give a voice to those still suffering and we show them hope is here, and help is coming.”
Jun 18, 2015 – 10:07 PM EDT
Last Updated: Jun 19, 2015 – 9:26 AM EDT