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UMass student provides ‘second chance’ for orphans

Richard Caesar
UMass student provides ‘second chance’ for orphans
The children show off their gifts donated by Operation Help Now. (Photo: courtesy of Operation Help Now)

Author: courtesy of Operation Help NowThe 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.

As Operation Help Now, Khonteh and his friends had already set up what he called an “awareness club” to inform the student body about people worldwide who were in need of help.

After getting support from his organization for the orphanage, that he aptly christened Second Chance At Life, Khonteh started to reach out into the community for funding. One of those who answered the call was Pastor Linda Andrews of the His Love Reaching Church in New Bedford.

Andrews said she first came into contact with Khonteh and Operation Help Now through their outreach work at UMass.

“It’s just a tremendous testimony,” Andrews said of Khonteh’s story. “Ibrahim is an amazing, very humble young man. He’s always selfless and always willing to give.”

She said Khonteh was invited to attend her church to tell his story and his cause has been accepted and aided by the membership there.

“We have couple of our members going over to meet him there at Sierra Leone,” she said. “We shipped over about eight barrels of shoes and clothing, hopefully to be a blessing over there.”

Andrew’s said her church has also assisted in feeding the children each month, a cost that Khonteh himself would have normally had to pay out of his modest work-study income. He does, however, still pay for the cost of rent out of his own pocket.

The orphanage has expanded in two years from 20 children living in three bedrooms to more than  50 living in in a rented house. Khonteh has since recruited everyone from friends to family members in Sierra Leone to help take care of the children and to keep the orphanage running.

“We call the orphanage Second Chance at Life because we just think these kids need a second chance given to them,” he said. “We don’t want them to have to go back to the life they had before.”