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From Sierre Leone to Yankee Stadium, war survivor making a difference

By Gabriella Casanas, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mohamed Kamara began taking care of his family in Sierra Leone when he was 9
  • He came to the U.S. and carved a unique path to success
  • Last week, the New York Yankees and others in the city honored the 18-year-old

New York (CNN) -- The last thing 18-year-old Mohamed Kamara from Sierra Leone expected was to be honored by the New York Yankees, but there he was, tossing out the first pitch at a Yankees-Detroit Tigers game last week.

Kamara survived one of Africa's most brutal civil wars, nearly losing his life in his homeland.

The Yankees celebrated Kamara's survival and community spirit here, where he has lived since coming from Sierra Leone, with the team's annual Project HOPE program. HOPE (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) recognizes people who have overcome their own personal challenges and who now inspire others by changing the community they live in.

"Today is going to be your day, where you're going to hang out with us on this Hope Week and we're going to make this day about you, because you make every day about everybody else," said Brian Chashman, general manager of the Yankees, as Kamara was being honored.

Hanging out was an understatement, even by Yankee standards.

Kamara got the shock of life when he walked into a room at the New York Stock Exchange and was greeted by Yankee brass and players, including star lefthander C.C. Sabathia along with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. He toured the trading floor and was awarded an internship for next year by the stock exchange.

He didn't know it then, but his surprise itinerary would next include a chat with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a visit to the United Nations to meet the ambassador from Sierre Leone and to stand on the rostrum of the General Assembly, plus that trip to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch at the Yankee-Tigers contest Wednesday night.

Kamara earned his special honors.

He was forced to become the sole provider for his family at the age of 9. With his mother suddenly ill and an absentee father, Kamara took care of his four younger siblings.

When a shaky ceasefire began in Sierre Leone, Mohamed came to the U.S. a few years ago to live with an aunt and uncle in the Bronx and to pursue his hope that he could create a better life for himself and his family.

He attended high school, starting without any English skills, and ended up graduating in the top quarter of his class.

A high school mentor helped him get a job as a golf caddy, and he commutes by train for almost five hours a day to and from New Jersey for that job. Seventy percent of what he earns is sent back to his family.

"(I) get up every day at four o'clock in the morning to go to work. It was hard for me, but you know, I was determined to do it because I have a family to take care of and that was my main focus," Kamara said.

He went on to earn a partial scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where he plans to major in business.

Kamara recognizes the problems created by Wall Street but is not deterred; rather, he believes he has a role to play in its recovery.

"You know, it takes someone to fix it up, so hopefully one day I will be that person," Kamara said.

Derek Jeter, captain of the Yankees, who met Kamara at the U.N., described him as "a remarkable young man. He's come over to this country, goes to school, works to support his family, now he's headed off to college. We couldn't be more proud of him."

After his U.N. tour, Kamara said he hoped one day to return to Sierre Leone to help improve things there.

"We're inspired by the younger generations, moving like this, and trying to rebrandish the country of Sierra Leone," said Ambassador Shekou Touray..

Kamara's friends also are inspired by the selflessness of his actions -- so inspired, they compare him to a president they greatly respect.

"One time he was standing for class president and people came out with, 'Mobama, Mobama!' We used to call him that," said Owusu Mensah, Kamara's closest friend.