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UMass student provides 'second chance' for orphans

Richard Caesar | 6/1/2011, 12:51 p.m.
The children show off their gifts donated by Operation Help Now. courtesy of Operation Help Now

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The children show off their gifts donated by Operation Help Now.



More than 50, once homeless, orphans on the streets of Sierra Leone now have a second chance at life thanks to a mere few hundred dollars and one man’s passion to help.

Operation Help Now isn’t just the name of Ibrahim Khonteh’s organization; it’s his way of life. A native of Sierra Leone himself, Khonteh has always been driven to give back to the community, especially since he immigrated to United States as a teenager. When he went back to visit his homeland two years ago he was struck by the overwhelming number of homeless children he saw.

“I just went to visit and I just saw all the kids in the street over there,” he recalled. “So many little kids were sleeping on the streets with no place to go. I asked my cousin, ‘What’s going on with all these kids?’ ”

These kids were the displaced children of the 11-year civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone and introduced the world to terms like “child-soldiers” and “blood-diamonds.”

Khonteh’s cousin explained to him that after the end of the war, many children started to migrate from rural areas to the city looking for homes, food and a future.

“Some of them didn’t have parents, some of them were involved during the war and now they were on the street.” Khonteh then went on to explain how he used all of his spending money that he had budgeted for his trip to provide 20 children with an opportunity for a better life, practically overnight.

“I sat down the whole night and talked to those kids, trying to find how I could help make things better,” Khonteh said. “When those kids wake up in the morning the first thing they think about is food. Either they go in the market and steal or beg or go help someone so they can give them food to eat.”

So, Khonteh went out the next morning and bought $20 worth of food for the children he had met. The next step was securing a roof over their heads.

“So I told my cousin, ‘I can’t let these kids sleep on the street tonight. We have to find a place for them.’ So, the same day we started looking for apartments and we rented three bedrooms for them that cost $250 for the whole year,” he said.

With food and shelter out of the way, Khonteh turned toward education. “The next day I went around looking for schools. I talked to a principal and told him, ‘I need you to help me out. These kids need to go to school. I don’t have all the money now but if you take them in, when I get back to the states I’ll find a way to get the rest to you.’ He totally understood and he accepted all of them.”

With less than $500, Khonteh had set up a basic orphanage. Once he was back stateside, he spoke to his friends at UMass Dartmouth, where he is now finishing a bachelor’s degree.