By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Sammy Kamara was 7 when his parents sent him to live with an uncle in Monrovia, Liberia, to learn English with hopes for a better life. The uncle betrayed Sammy’s parents, brutalized the child and gave him away.
“I was really a house slave,” said Sammy Kamara, a Local 374 Maintainer at the New York Botanical Gardens. “I was the perfect child laborer. I was not paid a penny. I worked. I cleaned. I helped with the children.”
“It was slavery. I could not move until master said ‘Move.’ If I made eye contact, they would whip me,” Kamara said.
His 2015 memoir “Breaking Point: A Journey of Self-Awareness and Finding Purpose in Pain,” recounts his eight years as a slave in Monrovia and the Bronx, and finally freedom. Kamara has worked for the Botanical Gardens for 40 years and attended New York Theological Seminary. His book draws on the wisdom of U.S. presidents, philosophers, and Scripture to comprehend the hardships he overcame.
“Some people break under harsh treatment and it manifests in self-destructive behaviors; they are resentful and hopeless. But a breaking point,” Kamara writes, “can have a positive outcome.”
Throughout his trials, Kamara never lost faith. “My drive was to achieve the dreams of my parents, to endure.”
“The only words of consolation I had were my memories of my parents and their wise words: ‘A man is a man that can stand on his word—regardless of the storm,’ my
father always said. No matter the difficulty, I can survive and succeed.”
Born in a remote farming village, Kamara “lived in the grips of abject poverty.” His father was illiterate and worked on rubber plantations for Firestone Tires. He wanted better for young Sammy and brought him to Monrovia.
In exchange for a promise to educate Sammy, the uncle gave the child to the Kamara’s, a prominent Liberian couple. In 1972, the Kamara’s hastily adopted Sammy, gave him their surname, obtained passports and boarded a flight to JFK.
“It was culture shock,” Kamara said. Though he was a legal resident, in New York City Sammy was the Kamara family’s slave.
Slavery is a malignancy on which world economies are built. The U.S. outlawed the practice in 1863, and many would leave slavery in the past. But human trafficking is a global reality.
Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy estimates that in the 21st century some 29 million people are enslaved; other watch groups estimate 100 million.
People are sold or tricked into slavery, experts say, especially in nations where there is deeply entrenched caste systems and social hierarchies, and an unending source of people living in poverty.
“Liberia struggles with a deep-rooted caste system that remains regardless of one’s intellectual ability,” Kamara said. Liberia banned human trafficking in 2005.
Still the Polarisproject.org identifies 25 types of modern slavery. Since 2007 they have logged 32,000 reports of human trafficking and over 10,000 cases of labor exploitation in the U.S.
After exploiting Sammy for years, the Kamara’s evicted him when he was 15. They kept his legal documents and clothes.
With only a school ID, Kamara had nowhere to go. A classmate took him in. “His mother advised me to pray to God for help and offered me the sofa to sleep on.
“I had nothing,” Kamara said. “I cried to God and asked, ‘Where do I go from here?’”
Sammy’s prayers were answered. His dean and soccer coach at Harry S. Truman High School helped.
“I also got a gift: I was one of 15 students selected for a summer internship at New York Botanical Gardens.” NYBG hired Sammy in the Custodial Department in December 1977. He said, “The job changed my life.”
“America is a country of opportunity,” Kamara said. “It gives you the freedom to pursue whatever you want to achieve.”
“I learned I can be my best self… who I am meant to be,” Kamara said. “That’s what a breaking point teaches you.”
“To read how Sammy faced what seemed like insurmountable adversities,” said Local 374 President Cuthbert Dickenson, “yet has turned those negative experiences into positivity, inspires us all.”
On his return from Liberia in 2012, Kamara started the nonprofit charity Reaching Out to Children with Kindness (ROCK) Foundation and orphanage for children affected by AIDS, poverty and violence, http://www.RockReachesOut.org. His memoir is available on Amazon.com.