You never know what to expect when you come to Ryerson University. Surrounded by such diversity and opportunities, I’ve come to take every day as an unexpected journey – an everyday Bilbo Baggins. That’s why when I saw a poster that read “In Conversation with Michel Chikwanine: A Former Child Soldier,” I couldn’t look away. Although my parents were expecting me home in the next 2 hours, I knew this was another one of those “once in a lifetime opportunity”.
The International Issues Discussion (IID) series is designed to engage the community on major events and issues in contemporary global affairs. Michel’s presentation was incredibly captivating as he effortlessly took us back to when he was a boy living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a refugee in Canad and now, a public speaker and student at the University of Toronto. I had not intended on retelling his story on this blog but I feel it is important to do so. His story is special because he survived but it isn’t unique as people to this day, are still living his story.
Courage and the pursuit of knowledge are two things that Michel has come to live by. For one, I think courage is a loaded term. What one might find courageous, another finds idiotic as it often means fighting the norm or what is expected of you.
“If you want anything you must be resilient’ – Michel Chikwanine
It was when Michel was a boy that his one courageous act is the reason he is still alive today. When he was a boy, Michel stayed afterschool to play soccer with his friends – defying his father’s order. It was there that soldiers came and abducted him and his bestfriend. There, like thousands before him, he was conditioned to become a weapon. Stabbed in the arm with cocaine and gun powder, he was blindfolded and told to shoot the gun that was placed in his small hands. The foreign curves and weight of such a violent tool was too much for him and he dropped it. But as the hysteria from his wounds took over him, he finally shot. When he opened his eyes, he saw his best friend lying there, in a pool of his own blood. He was 5 at the time and his best friend was 12.
That was his initiation. The soldier then evoked more fear by saying because he had killed his best friend, his family will never love him and they are his family now. This initiation step has forced children to believe a lie that encapsulates them in a life of fear, hate and violence. But Michel knew he needed to escape and he finally did when the soldiers took him to a village. Everyone went with their guns into the village but Michel ran into the forest. He ran for days, in a direction he did not know without food or water. To this day, he still has scars around his body. After days of running, he came out of the woods, to a shop that looked familiar. He ran into it, mumbled hysteria and passed out. He woke up in the hospital with his family around him.
After that things got worse and better. Michel’s father was a human rights lawyer and was abducted and tortured because he spoke out against the injustices that went unnoticed. When soldiers came to his house they made Michel watch as they raped his mother and three sisters. They said they would come back the next day so they fled that night with the clothes on their backs. Their journey as refugees was brutal but they eventually made it to Canada. To my shock, they were billed for the flight and food they had not only on the plane which amounted to $5,000.
Today, his family is not whole as his father was poisoned and one of his sisters went missing when she was getting her refugee papers. But Michel remains optimistic and courageous. He speaks about his experience and advocates for change that one day children won’t have to endure the terrifying experiences that he went through. I leave you now with the words his father told him many times before and that he strives to live by:
“Who in this world won’t die? But what defines us is the legacy we leave behind” – Ramazani Chikwanine