When children ask Damba Koroma about her stump of a left arm — and they always do — the 24-year-old Lake Worth tutor does a mental calculation.
For the youngest, her explanation is brief: “Bad men took it.”
For the older ones, she’s only a tiny bit more elaborate: “I lost it in a war.”
And should someone jump to the conclusion that perhaps she was a soldier, she corrects them. “No. I was the victim in a war.”
The story, of course, is much longer. Much more complicated. With an ending few, least of all Damba, could’ve predicted.
Damba is a refugee from Sierra Leone.
She arrived in the U.S. at age 7, by which time Damba had been raped by teenage rebel soldiers who then dragged the girl, her mother and the rest of their village to a cotton tree and drove a machete into the bone just above her wrist. When her mother screamed in protest, they turned the machete on her arm.
A day that began with 5-year-old Damba pulling vegetables from her backyard garden ended with the girl’s mother using her one good arm to carry her maimed daughter miles to the family farm. There, the man Damba called father wrapped their wounds in tobacco leaves and joined them for what would be a three-day walk to the nearest hospital.
Damba recalls passing bodies, piled on the roadside and abuzz with flies. She remembers the people who turned her family away when they asked for shelter. “I guess people weren’t very trusting.”
When they finally arrived, the hospital was full, Damba said. Too many hurt people.
“I looked up to my mother and asked her if my hand would grow out again.”
No. And that wasn’t the end of the misery. That didn’t come for two more years.
Sierra Leone’s history is filled with stories of misery dating back to the mid-1600s when the first slaves were shipped from its shores in northern Africa across the Atlantic to North America. The trade route thrived for more than a century.
By 1792, hundreds of freed slaves returned with help from the British to reclaim the region and settle what would become Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Its people later shirked British rule and managed decades of rocky independence, punctuated by a series of coups and counter-coups.
The country was two years into an 11-year civil war when Damba was born in 1993.
When people ask Damba about Sierra Leone and its war, her go-to shorthand is the movie “Blood Diamond,” the one starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie was fiction; the circumstances real.
The war wasn’t about conflicting philosophies of government; it wasn’t about religion or ethnicity. The soldiers were children and young adults pushed to act against others. Their army was sustained with money from Sierra Leone’s diamond mines and what they could shake down from civilians.
That’s what the rebels were demanding when they stormed Damba’s home — money. But she and her mother had none.
Eventually mother and daughter wound up in an amputee camp in Freetown, with plastic sheeting for a roof. They begged for money and food in town.
It’s not clear how the practice of taking the limbs of Sierra Leone’s civilians began, the war crimes commission formed after the war ended in 2002 reported to the United Nations. Both sides dealt in severing body parts.
The precise number of victims is elusive as well.
In addition to some 27,000 dead and 2.6 million left homeless, the commission report favored an estimate of 4,000 “intentional amputees” (not to be confused with those whose wounds required amputation), three quarters of whom likely died in the process.
About 1,600 intentional amputees were alive in the country when the commission made a tally – most of the victims having lost one or both arms. Legs, ears and lips were also taken, the report said.
It was a world away from Staten Island and a man whose family was in the prosthetic business. And yet it was from there, with Matthew Mirones, that Damba’s life and that of five other Sierra Leone children would be forever changed.
Mirones read about the civil war’s amputees in The New York Times and decided he wanted to do something. He would fit children with prosthetics and send them back as “beacons of hope,” according to a story that appeared years later in The New Yorker.
He set about forming alliances with a local hospital and charities – avoiding the traditional organizations — to make it happen.
Mirones picked six children from photographs at the amputee camp, making sure they had enough of their limbs remaining to make a prosthetic viable. In September 2000, the children arrived at Dulles International Airport in Fairfax County, Virginia, with two adult amputees and two chaperones. The children, the youngest of whom were 4 years old, the oldest in their teens, arrived not only missing arms and legs, but also malnourished and emotionally withdrawn.
Damba wore a lacy pale pink dress and beads in her bobbed, braided hair.
She says she thought the streets would be literally paved in gold. They weren’t. Leaving the airport, her eyes instead were caught by the high rises, endless streams of cars and a lot of white people, white people everywhere, she said.
“It was not what I expected, but nothing compared to where I came from,” Damba said.
A new village formed around the arrivals, including members of the local Rotary Clubs in New York who put them up in a hotel and then a condo, and the staff and family at the Staten Island University Hospital. Their story ran in The Washington Post and The New York Times. They appeared before Congress and Amnesty International.
And then a new battle brewed.
“Egos. Politics. They were supposed to go back and another group of kids were supposed to come,” said Nancy Passeri, who found herself among those arguing for Damba and the others to stay.
Passeri became a vested party in their lives despite her early efforts to avoid it.
Passeri, a retired oncology nurse, had grown children, but she was married to Andy Passeri, president and CEO of the hospital where the children were being treated.
“When he came home and told me about these children from Sierra Leone, that they were in a war, there were six of them, some had no arms, some had no legs, I said, ‘Don’t tell me about that. It’s so sad. There’s nothing I can do about that.’ ”
But there was something she could do now that they were here.
“They were having trouble getting the kids to all the activities. I heard myself saying, ‘Oh, I can help with that,’ ” said Passeri, who has since moved with her husband to Port St. Lucie.
She was more than a taxi driver. Passeri was there to soothe the sting of shots, weather the successes and stumbles of physical therapy, take the kids to the zoo and share pizza dinners.
For Damba and the others, who spoke no English on arrival, the Passeris soon became “Auntie” and “Uncle.” They still are.
Three months after the troupe arrived, their prosthetics were complete and Mirones and the Friends of Sierra Leone were ready to return them to Sierra Leone. Their families awaited. Governments had been made promises. More people needed help and everyone’s credibility was on the line. Ambassadors, former Peace Corps volunteers, various government agencies all spoke in favor of sending them back.
But not everyone was certain that Sierra Leone, a continent away, had the infrastructure to tend to the growing children and their prosthetics. Could those prosthetics even make them targets?
The children didn’t want to go back, Passeri recalls. And, according to various media accounts, their families didn’t want to endanger the children. Let them stay was their sentiment – though the parents weren’t eager to sign away their rights either, she said.
“I knew that I definitely didn’t want to go back. I also missed my family. My mom, she wanted me to stay here,” Damba said. Her mother’s words: “Things will be better for you there.”
The Rotarians, who led the drive to keep the children in the states, employed an immigration lawyer.
In the end? “There was a war. They didn’t go back,” said Passeri, who adopted none but became a touchstone for all.
Eventually each found an adoptive family in the U.S.
Damba was adopted by a couple also from Sierra Leone who lived in the D.C. area.
She stayed nearby for college, graduating with a degree in political science from Mary Baldwin University in Virginia. At the time she thought that poli-sci degree would serve as a stepping stone to law school. But she didn’t want to jump right in, and that’s when she learned of the Americorps program.
“I wanted to take a year off in between and I wanted to do something other than sit at home. I knew Americorps was a volunteer program.” Damba signed on, picking an assignment in Florida to be close to the Passeris. Last year, she worked helping destitute adults at The Lord’s Place read and work towards a GED. This year, she’s a reading tutor at a West Palm Beach charter school for struggling high schoolers.
Along the way, the law school plans lost their appeal. “I thought I’d do criminal or family law, but I don’t think I’d be emotionally ready or prepared,” she said.
Now she’s contemplating a Master’s in Business Administration, when her two years in Americorps is complete.
“She has high hopes of building a hospital in Sierra Leone. She’s a smart kid. We always thought she was going to be a minister,” said Passeri, who has enjoyed sharing dinners with Damba now that they’re both in South Florida.
Damba quit her prosthetic by sixth grade. The pirate jokes – remember the hook? – were hardly encouraging, she said.
But her shortened arm served her well enough to become a cooking enthusiast and a basketball player.
She once had nightmares about the bad men. Not so much anymore. That’s not to say the war or her past doesn’t unexpectedly crash into her world.
When she was 15 traveling with a group of minority high school students, she came across a fellow Sierra Leonean.
“I met a boy. Come to find out we come from the same place – and he was one of the child rebel soldiers. I went to the hotel and spent the rest of the night in my room,” Damba recalled. “He had a very remorseful look on his face. I could tell it tore him apart. I wish I had gotten his name, kept in touch. He was a kid too. His family was killed in front of him. He was forced to join. Later when I thought about it, he had no choice.”
Another time, she discovered a guy she had known casually was actually a half-brother – her father has multiple wives and children. The guy was living not far from her adoptive home in Virginia.
And there was the time when Oprah orchestrated the best surprise of her life: Damba, then 14, thought she was appearing on the show to recount her story as she had recently to her classmates. But when conversation turned to how she missed her mother, Oprah called out for the woman to join them onstage.
They were the first tears her caretakers in the U.S. had seen, they said that day.
“It was one of the happiest moments in my life,” Damba said.
Damba’s mother is back in Sierra Leone now, with her two remaining brothers. They stay in touch via a texting service, she says. One day, maybe she’ll retire there, near the white sandy beaches, she said.
For now, Lake Worth beach will suffice. And she has finally found a market to buy yucca and potato leaves and all the spices that remind her of home and infuse the apartment she shares with three other Americorps workers.
And then there’s her job, tutoring high schoolers who are struggling to reach a diploma for themselves.
“It was really hard at first. It stressed me out a lot,” Damba said. “But I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the kids.”
Damba continues to seek her path. In 2010, she returned to Sierra Leone for the first time to visit her mother there. She didn’t, however, return to her village.
“I kind of want to see it. See how it would feel.” It’s where she was hurt but also where she was home. “I’d like to see where I came from.”
“Auntie” Passeri keeps tabs on them all.
“I didn’t know anything about the war and the tragedy and all that. But we all became educated,” Passeri said. “They are all horrible, their stories.”
When it comes to her story, Damba, who is typically quick with a warm smile, is forever aware of her audience. When she retells it, she says she often favors the “PG-version” with a professorial distance that makes it safe for those listening - and maybe for her too.
“I usually am not an emotional person in front of others,” she says. “I try not to dwell too much on the past because I know if I do, things won’t be different.”
While their stories couldn’t change the past, Passeri is certain change happened. “It opened me up to the world. We need to be there. When it is put in front of us, we need to answer the call. We have to stay open and filled with love.”
This year, Damba, a green card holder, made another change in her journey. A bit of excitement slips into her voice as she announces she’s applied to become an American citizen. She wants to make her life here more permanent.