Journalist-turned-humanitarian Amanda Lindhout spoke of finding inspiration during her darkest days in captivity as she launched her scholarship program for Somali women at a packed Red Deer church.
The emotional 28-year-old made her first Central Alberta appearance on Sunday since being released in November from 15 months of torture and beatings in Somalia.
Lindhout said it felt right to launch her scholarship program in the supportive atmosphere of the First Christian Reformed Church in Red Deer, which she attended as a child with her grandparents.
After getting “choked up” about her warm welcome, the Sylvan Lake native thanked churchgoers for their prayers “which brought light into the darkness of my captivity.”
Lindhout revealed that the idea for her program, which will hopefully send 100 women from Somalia to university over the next four years, came out of the many days she spent being held for ransom in a small, windowless cell.
“When you are being kept in an utterly dark room, with no freedom to move because you’re in chains . . . I started thinking that if somehow I make it out, I have to do something great with my life.”
Lindhout confirmed that her brutal experience re-shaped her goals, from helping Third World people by publicizing their plight as a journalist, to helping them directly as a humanitarian.
She’s giving up journalism to learn how to set up sustainable development programs for the Third World at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia this fall. She’s also in the process of getting charitable status for her newly formed Global Enrichment Foundation, which will introduce other programs in future.
Although Lindhout does not intend to return to Somalia, she remains deeply affected by the plight of women in the north African country, telling the congregation, “I cannot be completely free as long as my sisters in Somalia” are being oppressed.
As a female, Lindhout said she was treated far worse by the Somalian kidnappers than her fellow captive, Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, whom Lindhout still speaks with weekly.
While Lindhout wasn’t yet prepared to go into details of her ordeal, she said the kidnappers “treated me and abused me in very specific ways that Nigel never had to experience” — because of their narrow interpretation of certain parts of the Koran, pertaining to women.
All females in Somalia are subject to “draconian” restrictions, with their rights to education and work threatened. Lindhout is planning to use word-of-mouth notification about her scholarships in more repressive parts of the country where candidates could face repercussions.
In some regions, women must cover their faces and entire bodies while in public and have male escorts. And females accused of a rumoured infidelity can be stoned to death.
The former journalist recalled that her young kidnappers came back from observing such a stoning during her time in captivity.
At first the 18-year-olds seemed “euphoric,” said Lindhout, but after observing their on-going discussions about the brutality, she realized that at some level they were traumatized.
She believes it’s a hopeful sign that even people who abuse others can have some amount of empathy. Imagine what might have happened, she said, had these young men, “who are children of war and poverty,” been raised by mothers who could have given them a wider world-view.
Educated females pass on what they’ve learned to their parents, their siblings and their children, she said. They also spread their knowledge in the community by helping others, and starting their own businesses. “These women can be a source of inspiration. They can achieve greatness.”
Each scholarship funded through public donations will be for $1,000, providing enough for university tuition and a living stipend. Until Lindhout’s Global Enrichment Foundation gets charitable status, she’s partnering with the Mary A. Tidlund Charitable Foundation, so tax receipts can be issued to donors.
Several leaders in the Somali-Canadian community were on hand Sunday to give Lindhout their support and praise, including Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, who spoke glowingly of Lindhout’s good will.
Halima Ali, executive-director of the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association, was impressed that instead of being “vengeful,” Lindhout is reaching out to Somali people. “I am so proud of her and her foundation.”
Hussein Warsame, chair of accounting at the University of Calgary business school, believes his impoverished homeland, which was devastated by a 20-year war and droughts, will be immeasurably improved if more women are educated. Currently fewer than one in four women finish elementary school.
Lindhout exemplifies “that kindness, empathy and forgiveness are the strongest weapons against evil,” said Warsame.
Near the end of the media interviews following the church service, Lindhout was asked if she had forgiven her captors.
First, she said it was a complicated question that doesn’t lend itself to a “yes or no” answer — then she said she did.
“I work on forgiveness every single day.”