By Julia Gaspar-Bates
Human rights activism is deeply woven into Matthias Seisay’s story, and eventually led to his immigration to the U.S. Born in Kenema, in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, Seisay grew up in a large extended family. “What I cherish the most is that every adult is an uncle or aunt. For blood relatives, the family dynamic is very deep,” said Seisay. “This creates a sense of comfort and confidence. You never have to tell a relative that you’ll be coming over for a visit. You just show up at their house.”
Seisay’s father passed away when Seisay was 12, and two months later he was sent to an all-boys Catholic school and subsequently to boarding school. “There was no grief counseling in those days. You have to grow up quickly and stand your ground. The rule is to respect people who are older. Boarding school, in those days, was highly discipline oriented. I learned a lot about who I am now from there.”
After completing high school, Seisay decided to take a year off before starting university to work as a supervisor in his uncle’s diamond mine. During that time, an 11-year civil war broke out, wreaking havoc in the country. “The war was a result of chronic greed and bad governance. We had a government in power for 24 years that neglected the youth and many other facets of society. People were aggrieved. The rebels were very strategic: They took control of the diamond fields and exchanged the gems for weapons. They argued that the war was about freeing people from dictatorship, but in reality, it was about personal gains, and children were used as soldiers to shed their blood for a cause planned by adults.”
Seisay continued his studies and began to teach high school in the capital city of Freetown but was nonetheless impacted by the war. “Eventually the rebels took over the entire country. They amputated people’s limbs and would showcase them so everyone could see their reign of terror.”
While volunteering with refugees as a university student, Seisay began to write articles about the war and submit them to different international organizations. This caught the attention of the then-president of Defence for Children International, who then visited the country. Seisay subsequently founded a local chapter of the organization, where he worked to release child soldiers and reintegrate them into society, either reuniting them with their families or placing them in orphanages. A fierce advocate for these children, Seisay traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa speaking about the situation in Sierra Leone. This ultimately opened the door to an internship at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1999, Seisay traveled to the Netherlands with child soldiers to attend a peace conference. There, he met his future wife, Anne-Claire, an intern at the conference. While this encounter blossomed into a cross-cultural friendship, it would be many years before they eventually married.
In 2001, the situation in Sierra Leone became dire for Seisay, and it became imperative that he leave the country. He traveled to the U.S. and ended up in Milwaukee, Wis., where a cousin was living. After studying at Marquette University, Seisay went on to work there, helping low-income, first-generation kids enroll in college.
Seisay experienced significant culture shock in the U.S., where people carry guns, particularly as he was coming from a country rife with war at that time. “Also, the individualism of life in the U.S. where you have to schedule everything [was a culture shock]. The fact that people complained about trivial things, like power cuts, made me laugh.”
Seisay and Anne-Claire eventually moved to Hyattsville in late 2019 to continue his passion for working with first-generation and low-income students at Bowie State University. “We wanted to find a place where we would be tolerated as a biracial couple. What we really like about Hyattsville is its unmistakable level of diversity. It is pretty much the United Nations. You do not only have people from countries around the world, there are businesses and restaurants showcasing their backgrounds.”
Although Seisay misses his family and his many friends in Sierra Leone, he does not intend to move back home any time soon. “Each time we go to Sierra Leone, my friends show up and just tell my wife stories about our childhood days. I know many people there at all levels of society — from ministers to cab drivers. Sierra Leone is now a stable country, with resilient and tolerant people. They have put those dark days behind them, I should say, and are working hard to rebrand their country.”
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