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22 June 2021
Jonathan, right, with his mother and brother, have built a new life in Australia.
Jonathan shares his journey from a refugee camp in Sierra Leone to helping the homeless on the streets of Sydney
Words Jonathan Abddulai
I was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
I grew up with a lot of anxieties and not trusting anyone. I lived with my uncle, his wife and their children, which was hard. I didn’t know my parents. My father was killed in the rebel war [the Sierra Leone Civil War from 1991 to 2002]. After his death, my mum fled to another town. I later heard reports that she had died too.
I remember living in a refugee camp with my uncle and family. There was nothing to eat or drink. I would hear gunshots all around us and I saw many people dead.
I did not feel encouraged or loved as a child. I didn’t play games or have friends around me. I wasn’t fed properly and was often beaten or locked in my room. At school I was bullied. I grew up not feeling connected with people.
Years later, a lady from Australia came home for a visit, saw my uncle and told him that my mum is alive and living in Australia. A few months later, a lady started calling my uncle – it was my mother!
Realising my mother was alive was quite confronting for me. I felt angry and abandoned. I blamed her, and even my dad, for everything that had happened to me. She told me that, after my father was killed, she was told that we had been killed as well. She felt threatened in our country and left. So, when she heard we were alive, she started looking for us. It was hard for me to accept this but, gradually, I realised she was telling the truth. She tried to get me and my twin brother to come to Australia.
Mum also had me talk on the phone to Salvos officers (pastors) Majors Paul and Robbin Moulds. They gave me courage to leave Sierra Leone, although I was still angry.
I arrived in Australia in November 2016. Seeing my mum and brother at the airport … it was just tears of joy. The family was reunited. It was a hugely different experience to come here. I felt like I didn’t deserve this life; it was like being in heaven. All the opportunities. It was life-changing.
I still sometimes had dreams about the things I saw in Sierra Leone. I was scared and frustrated that these memories followed me. I thought people would laugh at me if they knew. It was hard to communicate and let people get close to me. I could only talk to my mum and brother.
My mum, brother and I love and care for each other and our family is amazing. Mum introduced me to the Salvos and I saw pastors Paul and Robbin. I stopped coming to church but they continued talking to me and connected me to other people and a support group. I started feeling that I belonged, and I had hope.
The most important thing about The Salvation Army is hospitality, caring for each other, emotional and spiritual support. People just called me and started praying for me. They came to my house. I started trusting them. The love that people showed me in the church helped me see that this is the place where I belong. No judgment. No discrimination. These are my people. Now I am the one who sometimes calls others. I collect money for the Salvos and volunteer my time.
I am now working for the Salvos, assisting people experiencing homelessness. I do a lot of outreach. I engage with the community and refer them to Salvos and other services to get them the help they need.
At the Salvos church, I lead the young adults group and help encourage others who are going through problems to feel safe and hopeful.
I went back to Sierra Leone in 2017. As a child, seeing people maimed, I wanted to help them. I had the opportunity to come to Australia, so I decided to go back to see what I could do. I formed an organisation in January 2018 to help those with disabilities. Our team wants to open a centre where they can meet, learn some skills and produce goods to sell to earn an income and live independently. We are in the initial phases of our work and hope to do more into the future.
My future is clear – I want to serve God, bring more people into his kingdom and help change lives.