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After a long captivity in Somalia, Amanda Lindhout looked past her ordeal by creating a foundation that changes lives in the troubled African country
Canadian freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout had just arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2008 when she was taken hostage by a gang of teenage criminals. To survive her 460 days in captivity, she retreated from the horrendous conditions into her memories.
In an extraordinary act of forgiveness, Lindhout, now 34 and based in Canmore, Alta., brought to life an idea from the darkest days of her imprisonment. In 2010, she launched the Global Enrichment Foundation, which has provided aid and education to more than 300,000 people in the same war-torn, drought-plagued nation where she was once held hostage. Close to her heart is the GEF’s university scholarship program for Somali women. The foundation also partners with corporations to help them accomplish their humanitarian goals.
Lindhout, whose 2014 memoir A House in the Sky remains a New York Times bestseller, is a sought-after inspirational speaker and adviser to international governments, global leaders, non-profits and policymakers.
You’ve written about wanting to transform the fear you felt as a hostage into positive change in the world. Why did you start the Global Enrichment Foundation?
The idea for the GEF came to me when I was in what I call in my book the Dark House: a pitch-black room. Part of my survival strategy was to use my imagination to figure out what I would do when I was free. It sounds strange, but my strongest thought was to make positive change in that country. I was surrounded by teenage boys who had never been to school, and I couldn't help feeling that they would have been different people if they had a chance to learn about the world. And yes, I was thinking about the woman at the [Mogadishu] mosque who risked and possibly lost her life to help me.
I had no experience in the not-for-profit world, so there I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be really cool to start a university scholarship for Somali women, to honour that woman at the mosque?”
How did you bring the foundation to life?
It was very hard getting it set up. Some people thought it was really sweet, or they thought it was strange. In either case, no one was lining up with cheques. But I never doubted whether it was the right thing to do. I surrounded myself with people who knew a lot more than I do.
I talked my way into a postgrad diploma program at St. Frances Xavier in Antigonish, a six-month international development course. I surrounded myself with people who were experts in not-for-profits. And I surrounded myself with people from the Somali community. When I came home from captivity, I was overwhelmed by how many members of Somali community took time to contact me reach out with notes or invitations to community events.
So I gathered a group of leaders from the Somali community, especially Dr. Hussein Warsame of the University of Calgary, who was very familiar with the private university system in Somalia. With his help and the rest of the board, we were able to get that first program off the ground. It took a good year from inception. Today we partner with 14 universities across Somalia, in some regions that are very volatile and in some that are much more stable.
Was there an “aha” moment?
Everything changed in 2011, the year of a devastating famine in Somalia. I had planned my first trip back to Africa, to a Somali refugee camp in Kenya. I was there when the UN declared the famine. Looking at these people, the mandate that began as education – well, emergency aid became part of the mandate, and we started fundraising for famine relief.
The famine was a big news story, and I was an interesting angle for the media: a former hostage trying to raise money to feed people with our Convoy for Hope. We were a little grassroots and we were early on the ground, so we could do it.
How did you come to the attention of the corporate world?
The publicity machine kicked in. Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Chobani Yogurt, saw me on the Today show. He gave us $1-million U.S. for famine relief in one fell swoop. He is such a good person, so kind.
We often get cheques for $10,000 or $15,000 that come as a result of me speaking. I’m not up there fundraising. But the corporate partners often set up the opportunity to donate. We also get small contributions from individual donors, and from students. They touch me deeply.
How can people, and companies, bring forgiveness, compassion and social responsibility to bear in everyday life?
A lot of people talk to me about their desire to make a difference, to be compassionate. It applies to business, in terms of social responsibility. You have to make a choice very deep in yourself to be a compassionate person. You have to commit to it almost daily. But just begin; make that choice. There is no shortage of opportunities.
Every person has a responsibility to give something back to the world, especially in a country like Canada. The more you do for others, the more you, your business and your family life benefit; you are a better, happier person. Giving of yourself is the greatest gift.
For more about Amanda Lindhout’s work in Somalia, visit Globalenrichmentfoundation.com.