In a world filled with war and violence, St. Petersburg College student Sane Haidara believes peace can only be achieved through education.
Sane, 23, an international student from Timbuktu, Mali, came to SPC in December 2012 to get a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and Administration. He wants to take what he learns to help implement change in his homeland.
“With education, I can help people by working with different organizations and officials on making things better,” said Sane, who wants to serve as a human rights activist and help educate his fellow Malians about their rights. He hopes to one day work with the United Nations to help make a difference.
He said that ignorance of laws and human rights is one of the biggest issues Malians face.
“Even though we have democracy in Mali, people still don’t know what democracy really means,” he said. “My goal upon completing my education is to go back to Timbuktu and help improve educational opportunities and human rights—especially women’s rights—health, sanitation and malnutrition.”
In spring 2013, he began prerequisite courses at the Clearwater Campus. While he finds the classes exciting, they also are challenging. In Mali, education is very different; math is not required for all majors and students often are taught strictly to memorize rather than develop critical thinking skills.
In Timbuktu, poor families often do not send their children to school. Girls in particular are largely uneducated. His father graduated from middle school and completed a two-year training school to become a teacher. His mother was illiterate.
Despite the community sentiment, his father believed education was paramount and sent all of his seven children to school, including his daughters.
“He tried to speak up in the community, saying that everybody should send their girls to school,” Sane said. “Others responded that he was a poor man and asked why he would send all his children to school when they could work in the field and help earn money.
“My father said that he has lived in the darkness because he did not have much education. He was determined for his children to not know that darkness,” Sane said. This ideology is a driving force behind his desire to learn.
At age 9, he began delivering bread to the U.S. military before school to earn some money to help support his family and pay school supplies. After school, he often would help Mali tourists around the city because his home was located between two hotels.
“I would help the tourists around the city so I could practice more of my languages,” said Sane, whose native language is Songhai but also fluently speaks Tamasheq, Bambara, English and French, as well as limited Italian and German.
Helping the tourists also had another unexpected outcome. During their visit to Timbuktu, he met tourists Tony and Patti Leisner from Tarpon Springs. They corresponded with him throughout the years, sending him books and encouraging his education.
After high school, he studied literature for two years at the University of Bamako before putting his linguistic skills to use as an interpreter for the U.S. military.
“I realized this is a good way to start a business because there are not a lot of interpreter businesses in Mali,” said Sane. A few months later, he ended up with contracts with the U.S. and Canadian governments to provide interpreters for trainings.
While he was living and working in Bamako in early 2012, Islamic extremists and insurgents invaded northern Mali. They imposed their version of Sharia Law by first burning churches and attacking Christians and tourists. Women no longer were allowed to speak to men and were forced to wear burkas to cover their bodies.
“The people who resisted, who were activists and marched to protest it, got publicly beaten,” Sane said. “Some got their hands chopped off; some got stoned to death.”
He worried about the safety of his family and neighbors in Timbuktu, particularly due to his business affiliation with western military forces. He decided the only way to ensure their safety was to help facilitate their escape to Bamako, where they stayed for nine months before returning to Timbuktu.
When the U.S. forces began suspending aid in Mali, he lost his business contract and was uncertain what to do. That’s when the Leisners helped him to get a U.S. student visa so he could study Public Policy and Administration at St. Petersburg College. They invited him to stay at their Tarpon Springs home until he could get situated.
Now at SPC, Sane is using every available opportunity to learn and work toward his goal of future activism. He is gaining leadership experience as vice president of the International Club, a member of the Clearwater Campus Student Government Association and is part of the Model United Nations team.
He often thinks about when he said goodbye to his family and friends in Timbuktu before coming to the U.S. The people there said their hope was in him, that they know he will come back to help them.
With every class he takes, Sane is determined to not let them down.