Regaining lost youth: A place to heal in Sierra Leone

Fazineh Keita and Ava Vanderstarren, founders of Innocence Lost Foundation, are raising money to build a community centre in Kabala, Sierra Leone in order to provide a safe haven and educational facility for former child soldiers affected by the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s.

Through presentations, event fundraising and outreach programs throughout the Lower Mainland, they also to hope to raise awareness of and draw attention to the deep social issues in Africa and other places around the world where children are being used in war.

“Through art, people can heal, and the main purpose of the community centre is to help people who’ve been through war to understand their experiences and traumas. If people don’t have a healthy way to express that, they may pass it on to their children and others,” says Keita.

Finding hope after war

Fazineh Keita (left) and Ava Vanderstarren, founders and directors of the Innocence Lost Foundation. | Photo by Simon Yee

Fazineh Keita (left) and Ava Vanderstarren, founders and directors of the Innocence Lost Foundation. | Photo by Simon Yee

During the Sierra Leone civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, both rebel and government forces conscripted children into their respective militias. Child soldiers fought on the front lines, worked in forced labour camps or were used as sexual slaves. Some saw their parents murdered. Many children coming out of the war continue to face physical and psychological traumas and addictions today. Keita, 27, born in Kabala and a former child soldier himself, experienced first-hand the horrors of war.

“I spent most of my childhood fighting in the war and I had to do what I had to do,” Keita says. “For the longest time, I wanted to run away [from life rather] than accept it. But no matter how bad or wrong you think life is, it’s still your life. When you accept it, other people will accept it.”

After coming to Canada, Keita met Vanderstarren, 22, at Vancouver Film School, which they attended together. Keita identified strongly with Vanderstarren’s kindness and passion to help others in need.

“She was there for me when I was going through a ton of trauma at the time. Now I laugh and find myself at peace more often,” says Keita.

“Everything he’s been through, he’s still such a good person. He didn’t let them drag him down, turn him into a negative person,” adds Vanderstarren. “He chooses every day to do the right thing.”

Rebuilding a community

Mutually inspiring each other, the two incorporated their non-profit foundation, Innocence Lost, in 2013. Their pilot project is the Kabala Community Centre, a multipurpose complex for Kabala’s community to heal the wounds from the civil war. A water well, medical clinic, gym, library, classrooms and computer labs are among the many facilities they envision for the centre. Music, fine arts and other creative programs are some of the services they hope to provide. Over time, Keita and Vanderstarren plan to establish similar centres throughout Sierra Leone and West Africa.

“We could have raised money to give to a charity, but we want to personally do something that will make a difference. We want to use our art and our talent to not only bring healing to child soldiers, but to teach people to understand what’s happening,” says Keita.

Starting up and running their non-profit foundation has been difficult and a lot of work, but the pair are passionate about their cause and see themselves
doing this together for the rest of their lives.

“We’re in this journey together,” says Vanderstarren.

Thinking back on his life’s journey so far, Keita feels the most important things in life are accepting your own life and who you are.

“No matter how hard, difficult or complex life is, if you believe it’s going to be better and you keep working for it, it is going to be better,” Keita says.

To learn more about Keita and Vanderstarren’s foundation and its projects, visit