The charismatic, ebullient man who greeted an audience last week at the Storm Eye Institute appeared to carry his past lightly. But Mohamed “Nabs” Nabieu’s childhood wasn’t some gentle idyll. He worked on a farm as a small boy. He narrowly escaped a life as a child solider when war came to his home in Sierra Leone. He spent two years living in the bush with a group of women and children and then on his own on the streets of Bo, Sierra Leone. Finally, he was taken in by the Child Rescue Centre.
He spoke about those experiences and about resilience in humanitarian settings during MUSC Global and Public Health Week. Kathleen Ellis, executive director of the MUSC Center for Global Health, said Nabieu’s story offers an example of human resilience that everyone, not just people in extraordinary circumstances, can learn from.
“It’s well known that health care providers are at high risk for burnout, which is one of the many reasons we felt it was important to bring Nabs to campus to talk about his journey of overcoming unimaginable tragedy,” she said. “The lessons he shared about how to overcome trauma and obstacles are ones that are applicable for anyone – but especially for our clinicians dealing with difficult situations every day.”
Nabieu said people often ask how he can be happy after all he’s been through. He said that’s hard to answer, but he’s proud of who he is and the work he does with Helping Children Worldwide, the nonprofit that funds the Child Rescue Centre.
“According to research, psychologists have found one of the best ways to cope with traumatic events – loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, divorce, terrorist attacks, disappointment, relationship problems – is social connections. I made friends when I was in the bush. I made friends on the farm. I made friends on the streets. Social connections are very important,” he said.
He then teased the audience, demonstrating the “proper” American way of getting on an elevator, which is to walk in, turn around, not talk to or look at anyone and possibly start to fiddle with one’s phone after a minute or so. Nabieu said he walks into an elevator and leaves his back to the door, so he’s facing all the other riders and can start talking to them.
Nabieu’s life wasn’t easy even before the war. His family was very poor, he said, and couldn’t afford to send him to school. In a country with an illiteracy rate approaching 70 percent, he yearned to go to school and learn, even trading his food for tutoring by friends whose families could afford the school fees.
Instead of school, he walked 6 miles every day to the farm to work. But he was learning important life lessons, he said. He learned the value of being on time, for every day he was in a competition with the birds to get to the crops first.
When he was 7 years old, the rebels came to his village. They rounded everyone up and asked the males to join them. Some men and boys raised their hands to join voluntarily. Those who didn’t would face the consequences. The rebels thrust an AK-47 into Nabieu’s hands, but the heavy gun fell to the ground, he said. They asked Nabieu’s father to join, but he refused.
“They asked my dad to go. I thought he was free. The moment he turned, they shot him dead. They started shooting everyone else who refused to join, so we ran,” Nabieu said.
For a year the group stayed in the bush, constantly on the move, trying to keep away from the fighting. At a moment’s notice, they might have to wake up and start moving, he said.
This disruptive lifestyle left Nabieu with sleep problems to this day. He’s done many sleep studies in the U.S., but doctors have found nothing wrong with him physically. The problem, he’s been told repeatedly, was his childhood.
After surviving the bush, Nabieu finally made it to the city where his uncle lived, only to find his uncle had left. He lived on the streets for a year until workers from a local orphanage –the Child Rescue Centre – found him and took him to safety.
“I had terrible nightmares. Terrible, terrible nightmares. I could not sleep. I refused to eat. At night, I would wake up. I would shout, ‘The rebels are coming! They’re killing my dad!’” he recalled.
But slowly Nabieu was able to feel better. The workers took him to many churches and prayed for him, he said. In addition, the orphanage sent him to school.
“They told us, ‘Next week, Monday, you guys are going to go to school.’ Maybe that is one of the reasons why I love Mondays,” he said. “When they said ‘Monday,’ when they said, ‘school,’ my whole world changed. Because with the death of my dad, my whole world was shattered.”
The Child Rescue Centre supported Nabieu all the way through college. He’s the first person in his entire extended family to learn to read, he said. After college, the orphanage asked him to work there.
During his tenure, he was able to work with international partners and increase the number of children helped to 600 from about 350, he said. They were also able to place these children with either extended family or foster families, while still paying for their educations and medical care, rather than have them live in an orphanage. Because Nabieu grew up in that setting, he regrets that he lost some of that sense of familial connection and rootedness. Today, the 600 children in the center’s care, he said, “are enjoying the connection between them and their families, which is important.”
Nabieu told the audience it’s important to use your blessings to bless others.
“I believe you are put in specific situations in specific circumstances with your specific and unique skills so that you can be functional. So you can make changes. If everything was good, you wouldn’t be needed in that place,” he said.
Nabieu now works at Helping Children Worldwide, based in Virginia. In addition to running the Child Rescue Centre, the nonprofit operates Mercy Hospital, which treats people regardless of their ability to pay. He urged the audience to support Helping Children Worldwide’s work.
“It is a poor country,” he said of Sierra Leone. "Many things have gone wrong. But I am so grateful that I am here today, and I can stand here to talk, and you can listen to me.”