|Amanda Lindhout, who spent 15 months as a hostage in Somalia, speaks with a teacher following her keynote address at the South Western Alberta Teachers' Convention Thursday at the 1st Choice Savings Centre at the University of Lethbridge. Herald photo by Ian Martens|
As the keynote speaker at the South Western Alberta Teachers' Convention Thursday, Amanda Lindhout's message to teachers was straightforward - educating youth is what's going to change the world.
She encouraged them to help students become agents of peace, whether in their local community or across the world. Lindhout said she believes everyone has a responsibility to create positive change in the world and she hopes her own efforts can be an example for others.
Growing up in Red Deer, she spent most of her life thinking there wasn't much she could do to solve world problems, but being kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia for 460 days changed her perspective of the world.
She discovered sources of strength within herself that have helped her transform a very painful experience.
"There are so few visible reminders of that experience," she told the crowd.
She had no mirror during her captivity and said she didn't recognize the woman staring back at her the first time she looked into one after her release. Patches of her hair were gone, seven teeth and a couple of toenails were missing and she was weak and very thin from starvation.
In 2008, Lindhout was 26 years old travelling the world with a backpack on her shoulders.
As she heard their stories she concluded people have more in common than not. They want to be safe, get an education and provide for their families. She pursued a career as a journalist to tell those stories. That summer she was in Baghdad, Iraq working as a freelance journalist covering the war.
"I had Somalia on my mind," Lindhout said.
With no functioning government for 20 years, Somalia was called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Lindhout and Nigel Brennan, a photojournalist from Australia, decided to go together. They were kidnapped while on their way to film one of the camps for displaced people. The kidnappers demanded contact information for their families and her father soon received a voice message telling him his daughter would be beheaded if he didn't hand over $2.5 million. Neither of their families had that kind of money.
She and Brennan were moved from house to house, always at night. They had no access to information but Lindhout learned her captors were all between 14 and 18 years old. Most were orphans who had witnessed horrible scenes from bomb blasts, they saw families being killed and their siblings die of hunger.
"None had experienced peace in their lives. Hunger and disease are part of their everyday existence," she said, adding extremist groups often give these children a job for a couple of dollars a month.
After two months Lindhout and Brennan were separated but they hatched a plan to escape through a bathroom window. They worked at the crumbling mortar until they had a hole large enough to slip through and fled to a nearby mosque filled with about 200 village men. Their captors soon found them and opened fire. The small group of villagers trying to protect them ran from the bullets but one Somali woman tried to help her. The kidnappers grabbed Lindhout by the ankles and dragged her away.
Things became worse for the captives after their escape attempt. They were separated and Lindhout was locked in a pitch black room, chained to the floor. She couldn't sit up or lie on her back. She was allowed to use the washroom five times a day, three minutes at a time. She wasn't allowed to speak or make any kind of noise, sometimes for weeks at a time.
"I never knew if I could make it through the day so I'd ask myself if I could make it through the next minute," she said.
She was starving, in pain, oppressed and abused and filled with anger, self-pity and resentment. One day, as one of her kidnappers was abusing her something snapped.
"Time seemed to stop and the world seemed to stop," she said. "Total peace washed over me in that moment and I felt calm."
She said she felt detached from her body, like she was watching from another place.
"I began to understand who that boy on top of me was," she said. "I realized something - this boy's suffering was greater than my own."
Although it was difficult, she decided to focus on forgiveness and compassion.
She and Brennan were released following a ransom payment by their families. Lindhout's father remortgaged his home and her mother fundraised to get the ransom payment together. Taxpayer money went toward government negotiations and she faced criticism in the media for going to Somalia in the first place.
"I felt enormous guilt," she said.
After a few weeks of feeling sorry for herself Lindhout said she decided she would put the truths she learned in Somalia to work.
"From that day I refused to be pigeonholed as a grim-faced victim," she said. "I realized my process of forgiveness had to include myself."
She vowed to do something to help Somalia and started the Global Enrichment Foundation. It has since raised millions for education programs and now operates six programs in Somalia, including food aid, school meal programs, running schools and female leadership initiatives.