Posts Tagged ‘Lovetta Conto’

World Refugee Day VOICES

Today, on World Refugee Day, I’m re-posting this message from a hero of mine, Lovetta Conto and, by extension, her friend Grace.

After the jump is today’s blog from Ann Curry. I know I’m like Twitter here, re-posting the work of others, but it is a statement of respect–they say it so much better than I.

Today is World Refugee Day.

“The Akawelle necklace is made from bullets that put my friend Grace in a refugee camp.  They are the same bullets that, with your help by being an Akawelle supporter, has taken her out.  This is her story.” – Lovetta Conto

FLEEING WARMy name is Grace Freeman and I’m 21 years old. Today is World Refugee Day – and it’s the first one in my life I will not spend as a refugee.

When I was a baby, my family fled the terrible war in Liberia. We made our way to the country of Ghana, where we lived in the sprawling camp of Buduburam Refugee Settlement with 40,000 other refugees.

Life in the camp was hard. We slept on the ground when we first arrived, drinking water from mud puddles. As time passed, we got tents and then were able to build small houses, but life wasn’t much easier. Our father left. Our mother tried to find food for us. I always begged my mom to let me go to school but it wasn’t free and we couldn’t pay. Finally my mother gave me to an important “big woman” in the camp, who promised to send me to school.

At the age of 7, I left my family’s small tin house and moved in with the important lady. She had been rich back in Liberia. Her larger tin house sheltered her many children and grandchildren. I was happy to finally get a chance to learn. But my dream quickly became dark. Instead of sending me to school, she made me her servant. The words for this in my culture are “outside child”. I was beaten daily and made to work long hours caring for her family. I learned to make fires, cook for twenty people, fetch water, scrub clothes, carry large cookpots full of hot food on my head to sell on the road to make money for the woman. She forced me to call her “Mommy”. I wore the same two dresses for years. I would sleep in both of them to stay warm, on the cold mud floor of the house. Insects and rats would crawl on me and bite my skin. I was not allowed to be called Grace, only Dog. She told me I was a “born slave”.


One day, I had a chance for freedom and I took it. I gathered my courage and finally ran to someone to help me. By then, my mother had passed away and I was 18 years old. For the first time in my life, I spoke out and told the world, “No, I will not be a slave. I am not an outside child. I am Grace.”

I was found by the Strongheart Fellowship organization which is a program for exceptional young people from difficult backgrounds. Through them, I moved back to Liberia to a big house called Strongheart House that they built with money raised by selling beautiful necklaces made from transformed bullets from the Liberian civil war. These necklaces – Akawelle – were designed by another refugee, Lovetta Conto, who is also part of the Strongheart Fellowship organization. The remarkable thing about these bullets is that it is these bullets that made me a refugee – and it is also these same bullets that took me out of those horrible circumstances.

Today I live at Strongheart House, with my brothers and sisters, and other young people who are also celebrating World Refugee Day in a home of our own – where WE are FREE – where we are no longer refugees.

I tell you my story today for one reason: to ask that when you think about refugees and the lives they are forced into, please remember what put them there. Before being a slave, before losing my mother – my troubles began with war. Most refugee troubles begin with anger and guns and scared people running. If we are talking about helping refugees, let us first talk of helping to keep people from BECOMING refugees.

Somewhere today there is a little girl who has a home in a troubled land. Maybe war will come there, maybe not. Maybe she will lose her home and her mother and all she knows. But maybe – if we focus on finding peace and removing guns from the hands of people who destroy life – maybe she will live in her home, with her own mother, and she will get to live her childhood – free.

My name is Grace. I am not a refugee. But I cry for those who one day might be.

Grace Freeman is a Fellow of Strongheart Fellowship, a healing and learning program for exceptional young people from extreme circumstances. The goal of Strongheart Fellowship is to facilitate deep healing, learning, and innovative thinking in young people who have experienced tremendous loss or deprivation in their lives due to challenging life circumstances but who have shown marked levels of resilience, social or emotional intelligence, and resourcefulness. Our commitment is to create the conditions that will assist these individuals to integrate their past experiences and unfold into their most authentic selves – into living their lives on purpose, aligned with their own unique blueprint – deepened and informed by their past rather than limited by it. Our belief is that by focusing on deep, personal transformation of individuals with enormous potential, those individuals will become key influencers and advocates who will ultimately bring sustainable systemic

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This is Lovetta Conto. She’s 16 years old, and I just got something from her that I treasure.

Lovetta was born in Liberia but fled to Ghana with her father as a refugee from her home country’s civil war. She grew up in the refugee camp, attending school as best she could, required to spend hours a day fetching water. She says, “…going through the war gave me my strength, and I knew it was not the end of my life. I envisioned myself as a tree growing up, growing fruit and giving my fruit to other people who needed help. My imagination saw me as more than I was. I knew I had to create a future for myself.”

Bringing her tree imagery to life, Lovetta has created wearable art that I love. The Akawelle necklace (AKA=also known as, WEL’LE=love) has two parts: a small leaf pendant stamped with the word “LIFE” and a round pendant that is the bottom of a spent bullet casing. The leaf pendant is also made from the melted casings of bullets. The area of Liberia where Lovetta is from was riddled with bullets—there were places where so many fired and discarded casings littered the ground, you would have to shuffle to avoid stepping on them and slipping. They were like fallen leaves covering the earth. The war ended in 2003, and still, spent shell casings can be found all around.

The bullets are collected for Lovetta by a man in her former region who splits each one open by hand. She buys the bullets from him for her jewelry and he uses the money to keep his kids in school.

100% of the profits from Lovetta’s Akawelle necklaces goes to the Strongheart Fellowship and the Strongheart House, a home and healing shelter in Liberia for children orphaned by war and other circumstances.

I wear mine every day.