At the tender age of 13, Ibrahim Dickey ’14 boarded a plane for the U.S. from his home in Sierra Leone, Africa. His mind raced with a healthy dose of excitement, mixed with nervous anxiety of the unknown.

He wondered what it would be like living in a new country, with a new adoptive family. At the same time he had pangs of sadness, thinking about those he was leaving behind at his orphanage, friends and caregivers who only moments before had hugged him with tears in their eyes as they wished him well on his new journey.

Ten years later, Dickey would make the journey again. Now a senior cross-cultural studies major and First-Generation student at Saint Mary’s, Dickey had an opportunity to return to his orphanage, All As One, in Sierra Leone June 18 through July 21 as part of an internship experience.

An estimated 340,000 orphans live today in Sierra Leone. The country is still suffering the effects of a brutal 10-year civil war. It’s a war Dickey, unfortunately, knows well. His parents were killed when he was only 3, young enough to not remember their voices or faces. He then spent years running and hiding, watching horrors unfold around him as he evaded being captured, drugged and forced into becoming a soldier.

With assistance from extended family, his aunt and uncle, Dickey eventually came to live for nearly three years at the All As One Children’s Center. Because of the war, he had missed out on valuable school years and could not speak English very well. But at the orphanage, he was safe.

All As One continues to serve orphaned and abandoned children in Freetown, and currently houses 75 to 85 youth from infants to age 13.

Before he left for Sierra Leone, Dickey listed his learning objectives as “to translate knowledge of cross-linguistic comparisons from my Cross-Cultural Literacy Development class to development of English reading and writing for children who speak Krio as their native language, but also understand the opportunities for Sierra Leone orphans served by American NGOs compared to typical educational opportunities of government-sponsored schools.”

Dickey’s goals — as a future middle school teacher — included immersing himself in their English studies and mentoring and coaching youth through sporting activities. But often, they taught him.

“They have so little knowledge about everything else, but they know about suffering,” he said. “Yet it doesn’t seem like they do because they are always in a good mood.” At one point the students had to write “a memory they would never forget,” and for many of them, Dickey said, that memory was an abusive situation.

“It was a bit hard to hear those kinds of things and see kids sick or see them in the same clothes each day. Because of the rainy season, they are sick a lot. They don’t have flu shots available to them like we have here.”

Dickey described conditions at the orphanage as having very few resources, even for generators or textbooks (and certainly not for technology), but as having an abundance of caring workers, many of whom continue to serve the children without regular paychecks.

Students who pay a $25 per year tuition were shocked to hear the cost of Dickey’s college tuition. “I want to sponsor someone through school in the future,” he said. When he first arrived at the orphanage, Dickey said students were in the process of taking examinations, so he helped conduct tests and explain questions in his native Krio language.

“It reminded me of when I was there. Unless someone read a question to me, I wouldn’t understand it; I had a very limited vocabulary.”

At lunchtime and after school, he played soccer with the boys, balance ball with the girls and learning games with all the students. Even games of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck and Hangman (new to them), were adapted to increase their English vocabulary while having fun. “They got excited,” he said. “They would want to play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck every day.”

When students discovered Dickey had lived at the orphanage, they eagerly questioned him about everything from whether he still plays soccer to whether or not he has a current girlfriend. “They were very interested about the U.S. I didn’t want to tell them because it would be hard for them,” Dickey said. “They would be impatient to come and I didn’t want to get their hopes up.”

He explains that adoptions are under scrutiny in Sierra Leone and fewer adoptions are occurring. Sierra Leone is reluctant to let its children go and parents storm adoption facilities accusing these agencies of selling their children. Huge obstacles remain as the country’s children’s centers clear their names of child-trafficking suspicions. “It is very heavy on the heart,” Dickey said. “There is a big problem over there because people do not know what happened to their children.”

Dickey hopes to return to his homeland after graduation and plans to do a letter-writing campaign to adoptive agencies in Sierra Leone and parents who have adopted from there. These families need to know, he said, that the children were adopted and are doing well.

The last day of his trip, Dickey said everyone took pictures and played games. “It was hard to leave,” he said. “It was the same feeling as when I was a kid leaving the orphanage. Everybody had tears in their eyes. Only this time I knew what I’m coming to.”

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