Red Deer native Amanda Lindhout was working as a freelance journalist in Somalia in August of 2008 working on a story about refugees when she was kidnapped with Australian photojournalist and colleague Nigel Brennan by a band of young Somali gunmen. During her 458 day captivity she was tortured and abused, often left in chains in a small dark room.
Like thousands of others worldwide who prayed for the release of Amanda and Nigel, I followed the story and held my breath. Amanda, with Nigel, was released in November 2009 and returned home to Canada after 15 months in captivity. It was a time of darkness difficult to imagine, and yet what is perhaps more remarkable than the fact that she survived the terrible ordeal, is the grace and vision with which she now lives.
Since her release, Amanda has launched The Global Enrichment Foundation which seeks to build stronger communities, cultivate leadership and promote peace through education in even the most poverty-stricken and violent of countries. The Foundation’s first initiative is the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program (SWSP).
It was my privilege to help Amanda put together a site for the Foundation, and to conduct the following interview, which took place via email, amidst her busy schedule.
Andrew Kooman: I’ve heard you talk about forgiveness, and that though not an easy thing or a straightforward path, that you’ve forgiven your captors. How essential has forgiving these Somali men been in your process of returning to normal life in the days since your release?
Amanda Lindhout: Forgiving the teenagers who took away my freedom for almost a year and half was essential to surviving my time in captivity. On a daily basis, while still a hostage, I set aside ‘gratitude time’ each evening where I would reflect on any moments of goodness I had seen in my captors. This helped me to remember that all human beings are essentially good, even if they are choosing to act in disharmony with that. Despite the abuse I endured constantly, I never doubted that those boys had inside of them the same spirit that I have, which is what all of humanity shares and which connects us.
AK: Your experience, from what I’ve heard and understand of it, seems unimaginable to me. You seem so resilient and strong. What was your survival strategy; how did you endure those long 15 months?
AL: I survived those long months in captivity by staying absolutely focused on the joy that can be found inside oneself. When you are locked up alone and shackled in a dark room, you realize that happiness doesn’t stem from external circumstances, and that despite whatever painful, difficult experiences you may be going through, you always have the power to transcend it by connecting to the source of peace which is within all of us.
AK: It’s been widely reported that your idea to create the Global Enrichment Foundation and the Somali Women’s Scholarship came to you during your captivity. Who is the scholarship for and what criteria do candidates need to meet?
AL: The Somali Women’s Scholarship Program was an idea I nurtured during a very dark time in captivity. Believing that I could do something to make Somalia a better country for those who live there gave me a goal to look forward to if I made it out alive.
I strongly believe that education has the potential to lead Somalia out of its current state of chaos and that educating the women, in particular, will make a significant difference. The SWSP is looking to educate, specifically, women who are interested in assuming leadership roles in their communities, ladies who will become roles models for the younger generations and create change in their country.
AK: Given the fact that women experience great oppression in Somalia, how will the scholarship be administered and how readily available is education to the women who will qualify?
AL: Women in Southern Somalia who want an education face a great deal of obstacles. Poverty is one of the main issues but in addition to that the radical criminal groups who control the southern regions have prohibited women in many areas from attending school.
The SWSP is available to any woman in Somali who has a high school education and who has a positive vision of what her country has the potential to become. We are looking to identify the natural female leaders of Somalia and to support them through their education so that they can achieve their dreams. Through a series of essay questions we will select the recipients.
These will be very brave women who are willing to take risks in order to improve their communities and the lives of women in their county.
AK: Where does your capacity for forgiveness and your ability to turn your great suffering into something positive for others come from?
AL: I have a unique opportunity to practice forgiveness and to experience the freedom that comes with letting go, because I have had something very ‘big’ to forgive. What happened to me in Somalia is reflective of the state of that country: where children are given guns and no one knows life outside of war. I feel that it is my life’s work to bring attention to this issue, and to create a program that will improve this situation. We all have the capacity to forgive. It is more natural then ‘holding on’ to something that is causing us hurt and pain.
AK: There’s not much good news coming out of Somali. The picture we get of the nation through the news is of a war-torn, poverty stricken land of chaos. After experiencing the poverty and chaos first hand – and the sorts of oppression that can manifest from it – how do you see lasting stability being achieved in the country?
AL: When you hear about Somalia in the news it’s usually related to terrorism, which is a legitimate issue and one that is difficult to address. I spent a lot of time thinking about this while I was in captivity and watching the kidnappers. I have come to the conclusion that education is the most fundamental way to create sustainable change in Somalia. By broadening the horizons of the mind, these young people will develop ways to improve the economy of their country, and will create mindful tolerance with the rest of the world. The good news coming out of Somalia is that the people themselves have hope for their future.
AK: You’ve reached out to the Somali community in Canada through your foundation, and you are reaching out to women in Somalia through the Somali Women’s scholarship. How has the Somali community reached out to you since your return to Canada?
AL: The Canadian Somali community has been very involved with creation of the SWSP. I have received incredible guidance from them and have many volunteers in the Calgary and Edmonton areas helping me coordinate fundraisers. They understand the importance of this scholarship program better than anyone.
AK: What other work do you want to see the Global Enrichment Foundation achieve – will its focus be primarily in Somalia?
AL: I will expand the programs under The Global Enrichment’s Foundation’s umbrella to include micro financing and micro credit projects next year, which will assist our scholarship recipients in Somalia when they graduate university. Eventually, I envisage creating programs to help oppressed women around the world in similar ways.
AK: I’ve read through various media outlets that you decided if you survived your long captivity, you wanted to do something great with your life. What does “greatness” look like to you?
AL: In captivity, when you have had everything taken from you and don’t know if you will live or die you ask your self the big questions. I knew then that there is nothing greater I could do with my life then to dedicate it to the service of others, if I were ever released. Now I have an opportunity to put my vision into action.
AK: Was your idea of A Great Life different before your ordeal in Somalia?
AL: I hardly even remember Andrew!
AK: You’re stepping into an incredible year with an intensive program at St. Francis Xavier University and an increased public profile. How are you gearing up for the whirlwind?
AL: I take 15-30 minutes of quiet time each morning to give thanks for the life I have been given and to set my intentions for what I want to achieve that day, blessing all the events and people who will come into my day as learning opportunities and teachers, and blessing all the situations that have led me to this moment in my life.
AK:. As you map out your vision for the next ten years, where do you hope the journey will take you?
AL: In ten years I hope The Global Enrichment Foundation will be operating in a dozen countries or more with programs that are empowering thousands of women.
Follow the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program on Facebook
You can donate to the fund here.