Jemal Damtawe has killed people. Lots of people. So many, in fact, that he lost count quite some time ago. Jemal’s victims included his neighbors, the slaughter indiscriminate. Jemal has not just seen unimaginable horrors, Jemal has perpetrated them. But no longer . . .
These days, Jemal doesn’t take lives, he enriches them. These days, Jemal doesn’t kill people, he helps them. People in need. Desperate people. People trying to turn their lives around.
Jemal has done just that and, given his background, if he can do it, anyone can. That he has survived to tell his tale is, in itself, remarkable. That it’s never too late to change is something we’ve long believed. No-one we’ve ever encountered has underlined this quite like Jemal.
He spent the weekend in Vancouver, helping to serve Christmas dinners (turkey, vegetables and mashed potatoes) to 3,000 poor and homeless people at the Union Gospel Mission in the city’s Downtown Eastside.
It’s a long way from Ethiopia, his homeland, where as a teenager, he was forced to become a child soldier in a civil war that had no winners. Ordered to take up arms against his countrymen, Jemal says that he had no choice. So he killed and he killed, shooting those in his sights and showing no mercy. It is an horrific episode and one that seemed certain to end in his own death.
But one day, Jemal escaped the bloodshed, sneaking onto a cargo ship destined for Canada. Not that his problems ended there . . .
He arrived in Montreal, but scarred, haunted and (unknown to him) suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he found himself in trouble once again. He fell into the gang scene, dealt (and took) drugs and began to drink in an attempt to forget all he had experienced.
‘All I could see in my head whenever I closed my eyes were all the dead bodies,’ he explains. ‘When I was forced to be a soldier in Ethiopia as a young teenager, I had to kill so many people. You know, all the time we were shooting people and I couldn’t get away from that. But when I drank, I couldn’t feel the pain.’
In Montreal, Jemal lost a close friend to an overdose and was shot twice. In the end, he realized that he needed to flee in order to survive. Once again, Jemal escaped, this time for Vancouver. Homeless and hungry, cold and addicted to drugs and alcohol, Jemal thought about suicide for a time but then, one day, came salvation.
Someone – a total stranger – gave him a coat and a blanket and took him to the Union Gospel Mission. That one kind act changed Jemal’s life and, in turn, is helping innumerable others . . .
You see, Jemal is paying it forward. Passing on that good deed, continuing the chain reaction and using his own experiences to help those who need it. ‘I lost everything like everyone else,’ he says. ‘But I’ve gained everything, because I have hope’.
This – don’t forget – because someone took the time and the trouble to reach out to Jemal . . .
To give him not just a jacket and a blanket, but a glimpse of fundamental humanity, kindness, and the goodness that can come from helping people rather than shooting them. From seeing people as friends rather than enemies. From connecting rather than killing.
Jemal has since married and has a two-year-old son. He is religious and, having taken a job as an outreach worker at the Union Gospel Mission, is dedicating himself to aiding others and making a difference. He’ll spend the coming days serving hot dinners and talking to those for whom Christmas will be spent on the streets. His is an example for us all to follow, because it’s never too late to make a change, and the Festive Season is the perfect time to do it.
Like the anonymous lady who reached out to Jemal, think about the lives YOU can touch this Christmas. If Jemal can do it, we all can do it. The past is the past but make a change and the future can be better. Together. In union . . .