Emmanuel Jal has an incredible story to tell and it’s one that he shares openly. Growing up in what is now South Sudan during a time of civil unrest and violence, he was forced to become a child soldier at the age of seven. Several years later he was rescued by an aid worker and smuggled to Kenya, where he was able to attend school and start to heal.
A twice nominated Juno artist, actor, author and activist, Emmanuel travels the world promoting peace, justice and equality and freedom for all, marrying his unique style of hip hop with hands on leadership training. No longer a refugee, his journey to Canada was completed in April of this year when he became a Canadian citizen.
Driven by an innate desire to share his story and work for world peace, he is partnering with humanitarian organization World Vision to call on all Canadians to protect and restore children living in the world’s most dangerous places, to lay a foundation for better, safer futures for them.
Q. You were so young when you were taken to be a child soldier. It is unimaginable to think about what you must have gone through.
I was seven years old. Hundreds of kids were collected. We thought we were going to school. We had to walk for hundreds of miles. Some kids died from dehydration, some from starvation. We had to dig graves; bury our own dead. It was so intense. Some children would call out at night, “Where is my mummy? Where is my dad? God what have we done, to have this happen to us?” It was terrifying.
I left home as a child and soon had an AK-47 in my hand. Because of everything I witnessed before leaving home, bitterness and hatred carried me through. I had flashbacks to the killings and rapes, of my village burning. So you start to hate. You are tormented by the experience. I wanted revenge.
I was a child soldier for 3 or 4 years. So much pain, injury, death.
Q. What gave you hope, during those dark days?
For a while, I had lost hope. I even wanted to harm myself. But then, a voice in my head said, “You are here for a reason,” and I began to believe that I would survive. I was possessed by this thought. I prayed to God to save me.
Every day is a miracle, for every human being. I learned that we were all being manipulated, and that it wasn’t our fault. My belief made me survive the last leg of my journey, until I was rescued by Emma McClune [an aid worker]. Now I do retreats to help people find their mindfulness — I teach them how to find peace. I just returned from one last month, in Kenya.
Q. What happened once you were rescued? How did you discover your passion for music?
I’m here because somebody cared, and tried to save the life of a child. Music speaks to your mind, to your soul, when we’re mad/sad/happy, we sing. Music always makes me happy. Music is where I see heaven. I didn’t know what music could do — you can use music to forgive, and dance out pain.
The music has been my therapy.
Q. How are you working towards peace?
I started the charity Gua Africa to support those affected by war and poverty from South Sudan, and to help refugees to complete their education and find jobs. I believe that education can enlighten you, can elevate you, open the mind. It’s through education that I have learned to forgive.
We are programmed by our culture, by our society, by our family, by our friends, by whatever is presented to us. Every human being is programmed like a computer, with software built in them. Everybody is right and is doing their best with what they know.
With conscious awakening, we can be enlightened and be more collaborative, empathetic and compassionate and see things differently and make the world a better place.
Q. Why are you partnering with World Vision and the Child Protection Campaign?
I always say you can never know the potential of any child, of any human being, unless they are given opportunities. I am here because a British aid worker called Emma McClune smuggled me to Kenya and put me in school. And here I am. It’s like what World Vision does — giving opportunities to children.
World Vision believes in education and enlightenment and building of communities — so the people living in poverty and in dangerous places can find solutions for themselves.
World Vision actively seeks out the most vulnerable children of all — no matter the situation, no matter the danger. In the toughest places, like refugee camps, conflict zones or famine contexts, World Vision is focused primarily on helping children survive, and they stay until the children are not just surviving but thriving.
There are thousands of children suffering right now the way I suffered thirty years ago — I partner with World Vision because I believe that every child deserves to have an opportunity.