It all started when…
My journey with pain and suffering began decades back and thousands of kilometers away in Ethiopia. As a child soldier and then being addicted to alcohol was not part of anyone’s dream for his or her life. Mine was a journey that unfolded into anguish and misery, unraveling further each day.
I often dreamed of being a professional soccer player or movie star, but at the age of fifteen, my hopes faded away into a haze of confusion. While walking to school, a van pulled up with five soldiers in uniform who jumped out and blasted their guns in the air.
Before the kidnappers dragged me into their crazy, civil war, my life was much different. My life changed into something that is hard to imagine, a world where there was no peace or joy. Seeing the violence and death would affect my life for years to come.
Jemal's enjoyment comes from seeing people break the chains of their addictions where they now live a life no longer controlled by darkness
A new man in Christ...
When I arrived at UGM, I was sixty pounds lighter than what I weigh today. My body was skinny, my brain depleted, and deep depression gave way to thoughts of suicide. My mind told me I was not going to make it in their program, but it also whispered that I needed to enter it just to rest and take a break from my life on the streets. It was a warm place to stay, the people were accepting, and the food was filling. “Why not try it … there was nothing to lose,” I thought.
God was fighting the war of pain with me. He was there to help me, but I had to do the work, with His strength and guidance. I just kept crying to God for help, to be strong, and then do the work needed to free me from sinful behaviours.
After a few weeks, I began to feel different and invited Jesus into my heart. Many people were praying for me. I surrendered my heart, and will to Him at Broadway Church when the pastor asked people to come forward for prayer. I said to myself, “I want to change my life.” It wasn’t because God delivered me from alcohol and drugs, I wanted to know God in a deeper way; have a closer relationship with Him.
Only when I learned how to read scriptures, pray and seek help … only then did I begin to understand and have some relief and some peace in my mind. I knew that when I came to Christ, He gave me freedom, a new life, new hope, and a way to let my troubles go. The most important thing was learning how to forgive. Not just say in my mind, “I forgive you,” … but make a deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards all who harmed me, regardless of whether they deserve my forgiveness.
When I am humble before God, the seeds of humility grow. Today I feel a real connection with others, knowing that we all fell prey to the same evils and that we all have dreams for a happy future. It all comes down to my daily prayer life and not having expectations that God will answer me right away. More often than not, He doesn’t, but I leave it in His hands, knowing that He is in control all in His perfect timing.
God is good...
I am far from being the spiritually mature person that I should or want to be, but I am trying each day to grow closer to God. It is important to God to see us trying each day. 1 Samuel 15:22: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.” Just as we want to see our children grow physically, God desires that we grow in our walk and not stay in the same place.
One way to test this is to compare your walk each month or year. Am I a more mature person today as compared to last year? 1 Corinthians 3:2, “I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able.” I learned the real power of prayer; spending time in God’s word changed my life. He has given me wisdom about situations to make decisions to protect my family, teaching me to love during the difficult times when the enemy whispers to me that running would be easier.
I was forced to walk a difficult and painful road. But what I discovered is that God was always beside me calling me to walk the path that God had chosen for me. I know this is the truth and that He is doing the same for you.
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Former child soldier finds book about his life and struggles with drugs helps his recovery
For Jemal Damtawe, spilling the traumatic details of life as a child soldier and violent gangster onto the pages of a book has been an important step along a path of faith and recovery.
Damtawe, 49, was profiled in a Postmedia news article in 2016 after receiving Coast Mental Health’s Courage to Come Back award in the addictions category. He shared parts of the traumatic events that led up to his recovery from drugs, from his time as a child soldier fighting in Ethiopia to his battle with addiction on the streets of Vancouver.
After receiving the award, many people inspired by Damtawe’s life encouraged him to tell the full story, he said.
Now, he has shared it all in detail with a book to be released next weekend called ‘Forced Paths – Ordered Steps: When Our Addiction Meets Jesus’.
Damtawe takes the reader back to when he was abducted on his way to school at 15 years old and forced into military service during the Ethiopian civil war. The brutal war began in 1974 after the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia staged a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie, and lasted until 1991.
After two years of fighting, Damtawe and a friend escaped as stowaways on a ship from Djibouti but were arrested. On a second attempt, he was thrown overboard, again jailed, and bound and tortured nightly for six months, he said.
But after his final attempt, he endured the three-month voyage on an ocean liner to Montreal where he opened a restaurant, got married and had a daughter. During that time, he also took to heavy drinking to dull the painful memories of his torture and of children slaughtered on the battlefield.
“I couldn’t sleep. If I closed my eyes, I remembered everything that happened,” he said. “I wished something would just switch it off.”
Eventually, Damtawe left his wife and daughter in Quebec to move to Portland, Oregon, where he joined a gang, sold and used drugs, and was shot twice during fights, he said. His time there took a heavy toll on him, and family and friends warned him to get out.
He renewed his Canadian passport and moved to Vancouver, but his addiction pulled him straight into the Downtown Eastside, where he became homeless and slept under a bridge.
Eventually, the overdose death of a close friend sent him to the Union Gospel Mission, which he had visited for food before but where he now sought a spot in a recovery program. Through bible study and group sessions where people shared their own stories of trauma, Damtawe found Christianity and sobriety.
“It helped me a lot,” he said. “There’s a community.”
Damtawe said he hopes his story of transformation through faith will “open the door” for others seeking to put trauma, violence and addictions to sex, drugs and alcohol behind them. There is no shame in sharing one’s past, he added.
He will also set aside 30 per cent of the proceeds from the sales of his book with the goal of using the money to open a recovery house in Coquitlam, he said.
“A lot of people are still in addiction, still in trauma,” he said. “There is a way to get out of there.”
Damtawe said he found that putting down the details of his life in writing and reading it over and over again during editing helped him deal with his own problems, too.
“Now, my steps are in order,” he said. “Now, I’ve found another path.”
Damtawe lives in Coquitlam and is an outreach worker with Union Gospel Mission and a preacher at Broadway Church, where he met his current wife in 2006. Together they have a son and he has also reconciled with his daughter in Quebec.
More information about Damtawe and his book can be found at jemald.com. The official launch is next Saturday at 2 p.m. with a signing event at Broadway Church (2700 East Broadway).
With files from Susan Lazaruk