“Talent is universal. Opportunities are not.” - Ishmael Beah
Those words came from a former child soldier. With the help of UNICEF, Beah was able to flee Sierra Leon, in return for speaking in front of the UN.
Beah realized his story was a lucky one. He was just one of hundred of thousands children who watch their entire families to be butchered in front of him at 13. There was no where else to turn but to a life of violence, each night wondering if he might survive the morning or sometimes even the hour. He shared his story yesterday (and many times before since he's a best-selling, critically acclaimed author).
When he got to New York, and was applying to school as a 17 year old, he was asked Where's your report card? As a response to this question, his entrance essay was entitled Why I don't have a report card? Now imagine if you had to grab only one thing from your home as a crazy group of violent men come to burn, rape, and massacre your village, most of us would grab our report cards, right? ….You know, just in case we have to show it to a random school director in the future.
As a refugee with other refugees, he shared to us what they felt when they came to the US. The former child soldiers were put into trade programs to work as plumbers or mechanics, and they were angry. No one had asked them what they wanted to do. Perhaps some of them had dreamed of being a teachers, economists, or engineers, but no one asked them where think they would excel. They should of just felt lucky enough to be out of Sierra Leon with the chance to live The American Dream.
There is not doubt that these people did feel lucky, but there was still little choice in their lives. Think about how many times you got to change your major while at university, or even how you can stand in front of the book shelf at the library with thousands of choices before you. These are privileges. Beah didn't have a choice when he became a child soldier. People do things to survive, and in extraordinary situations, you have to make extraordinary choices. But one thing does remain true, “Talent is universal. Opportunities are not.”
Speaker after speaker at the summit proved this true. Chris Ategeka was an orphan in Uganda at 7. He found himself in an orphanage for kids whose parents died from AIDS, then adopted by an American couple. After getting a Masters from Berkeley in Mechanical Engineering, he is bringing his talents back to East Africa by helping produce and distribute emergency response vehicles and mobile hospitals so people would have a way to get to the hospital in emergencies. (Many times women in birth are transported in wheel barrows, elderly on the back of a bicycle, or if none of those options are available, perhaps some caring community members physically carry them for miles to the nearest hospital.)
Adam Lowy, a guy who grew up in Jersey whose parents owned a moving company, noticed how much non-perishable food was thrown out during moves. It sickened him. From there he started Move from Hunger, a network of moving companies, realtors, and food banks, that have collected and provided over 3.5 million meals since 2009 that would have been thrown out.
A kid from Australia, Viney Kumar, on a trip to Bangalore, noticed ambulances stuck in heavy traffic. This 12 year old (at the time, he is now 16), understood the importance of a minute in a life and death situation, so he developed an app to help emergency response units find the quickest route to their patients and the hospitals.
These people are clearly all beyond intelligent and talented, and as Beah would have described, “won the lottery of birth” to be able to work and implement these ideas and projects into the real world. They decided to take their talents and create opportunities and choices for themselves and others. They are the inspiration.