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Teenage Symbol

A dozen years ago in Sierra Leone, West Africa this little girl with one arm and a gentle face became an unlikely global symbol of human depravity. Madeline Albright, then secretary of state was photographed holding the girl in her arms.

The girl became the much photographed poster child for atrocities committed by a militia that chopped off arms and feet of civilians. Sierra Leone’s president at the time took her to peace talks as a stark reminder of the human cost of the civil war. Some dubbed her, “Peace Girl”. Today Sierra Leone is at peace and I was astonished to learn from Albright that Peace Girl is now an American.

Meet Memuna McShane, she’s fifteen and living in Washington DC with her siblings Michael and Molly and adoptive parents Kevin and Kelly McShane. I recently visited Memuna’s home and I was thrilled to see how well she’s adjusted to life as an American girl and just how normal her life is.

When I’m with this family I don’t feel any different. They all treat me like they treat each other.

I was a PeaceCorps volunteer in Sierra Leone before the war, 1987-1989 and it sort of always held a very special place in my heart.

Kelly told me that when she’d heard of a group of child war victims coming to the U.S. and gaining asylum, that caught her interest.

After the kids all got asylum they started looking for adoption…people to adopt the kids and guardianship. So I called, and they said well we have the perfect girl for you. And I think for us it was very important that she be just another normal little girl. The first day that Memuna was living with us she went to soccer practice.

I like to play soccer and basketball. Well I like to do any sport, really but I’m serious about those two sports. For my soccer team, for my travel soccer team, I play the forward, right or left forward.

It’s funny, I think when were first thinking about adopting her we were concerned about the one arm and what it would be like and pretty early became clear that it’s really not a big issue and that Memuna’s just amazing with doing things by herself.

Can you do things pretty much by yourself? Getting dressed and everything else. Yeah I can do everything anybody can do with two hands, except for the monkey bars. I could never do the monkey bars. .

At school Memuna do people know your history? Do they know that you, you know…? Um, people in my advisory group do. I sometimes…it just depends on my mood whether I want to tell them or not. If I’m like happy, cheerful I’m fine telling them about it but I get really uncomfortable when people ask me about what happened to my arm.

I know it’s like really easy to say like, well it’s not easy to say it but it’s just like too simple of the words: it got shot but it’s just really hard to say it so I usually just ignore them.

Memuna has a photo of her Sierra Leone family on the eve of war. When the militia attacked her father fled and later died under unclear circumstances. Gunmen killed her mother and grandmother and apparently while in her grandmother’s arms, bullets grazed Memuna’s side and pulverized her arm. At the age of just two, she had to have her arm amputated and a memory of the hospital still lingers.

There..I do remember hearing screams and like I was on one side, one part and there’s like a person on the other side and I heard screams and I like…all this vision went like really fast for me so I only have like fuzzy memories of things.

Our daily life gets so busy we don’t think about it that much and I think when I do think about it, it definitely makes me want to cry. Just thinking about what her life was as a child in this war torn country. Um, we’ve gone back to visit now twice.

When the McShane’s traveled together to Sierra Leone, Memuna was astonished by her fame there. When I went to Africa I did feel like a symbol of somebody, like very important. Because a lot of people cried and like, they’re like oh you’re alive and stuff like that.

And we’ve seen the refugee camp where she used to live. We saw the home where she was born. We’ve met her aunts and uncles. Her three brothers are like our sons now.

This summer though, we’re hoping for them to come and visit us this time. Cause I really want to show them around here. D.C. and how I live and stuff. Yeah.

Mostly Memuna now lives an ordinary life. Once a global symbol of suffering caused by the human capacity for evil, she’s now just a teenage girl with amazing footwork on the soccer field. She’s a poster child of nothing at all. Just a dazzling teenage girl who embodies the human capacity for resilience. For the New York Times I’m Nickolas Kristoff.

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