Hometown: Roxbury, NJ
by Elsie Walker
“My life is a message to the world, telling others to be bold enough to use their voice, brave enough to listen to their hearts, and strong enough to live the life they have always imagined,” said Issac Bayoh, a graduate of Roxbury High School. Bayoh is only 23 years old, but during that time he’s experienced a great deal: losing family in Sierra Leone to Ebola, coming alone to America with only $35 in his pocket, knowing frustration and despair, and gaining empowerment as a delegate to the Junior UN assembly and founder of his own fledgling foundation: Girl Optimization. Bayoh said he’s seen that when you come to the end of your rope, God will provide a knot so you can pull yourself up. Recently. Bayoh, who now lives in New York City, shared his story.
Bayoh was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone in West Africa. His father left the family when Bayoh was seven months old. This created a difficult situation for his mother due to how his country’s culture sees women, especially women without husbands. A father teaches his son to be hard and tough. Women are not valued in that country, but are treated like chattel. Girls as young as 12 are given to older men in marriage. Sierra Leone is a society where men can do whatever they want with women. Bayoh was a mild-mannered, tender-hearted child. He was bullied by the local men for not having the demeanor they believed a man should have. “The culture is so full of hate,” Bayoh said. Things got very difficult, and his mother, fearing for his safety, sent Bayoh to live with his aunt. Bayoh still helped support his mother, who was taken seriously ill with typhoid and malaria. He sold his clothes to get money for medicine. Once a fine student, he stopped going to school so he could try to earn money; he even begged for money.
Ebola (a rare and deadly disease) hit the country and close to his heart; eventually, Bayoh lost most of his family to it. He remembers going to make tea for his ailing aunt one day and when returned to give it to her, seeing her lying there; she’d gone cold. Bayoh’s legs went weak. He was sweating. However, he knew he had to get out of there, leave before the Ebola team came and took him away. He had walked about three miles when he got on a bus.
“With every step came a decision to take another. From an entire childhood of bullying and teenage years of misplaced trust, I learned to put up a strong facade to hide my weakness within. It took painting a mental picture of someone I would never want to be, that unleashed my determination, to make the ultimate decision that I was going to make the rest of my life the best of my life,” said Bayoh.
Scared for his life, he dug up some money he’d saved and applied for a visa. He arrived in the United States on July 17, 2014 with a suitcase, a duffle bag, and $35. He had no idea where he would go from there. “I left everything behind, a mother I love, a sister I cherish, friends I care for, and a life unwanted as I fled to America. I was not going to limit myself to the tried-and-true. I was creating a new vision for my life; the way I wanted to see it and finding ways to achieve it. Coming to America is hard, especially for a Sierra Leonean immigrant like me.” he said.
Seeing this young person, an New Jersey Transit – MTA worker named Ana befriended him, heard his story, and said he could stay with her. She had visited Sierra Leone and knew of the conditions there. Ana lived in the Port Morris section of Landing, Roxbury Township.
Bayoh attended Roxbury High School. He sang in its choir; he excelled in his studies. His essay “Tears of My People” was published in the school publication and he got a temporary job working in the deli area of a supermarket. Bayoh earned scholarships to some prestigious schools, including Cornell University and Eastern University. He attended the latter for one semester, but the scholarship didn’t provide enough money, and because of his immigration status, he could not get student financial aid. The school suggested he go back to Sierra Leone and work things out with immigration. However, he explained to them, “I can’t go back. If I go outside the United States, I can’t come back”.
Thus, after only one semester in college, Bayoh had to drop out. He stayed on, working in Pennsylvania and living with a friend for a year. He returned to Roxbury, when Ana became sick and needed his help. There, he felt isolated. His peers were continuing their education. He was in a small town with no car. He was depressed.
A friend in New York invited him to visit, so Bayoh walked to the train station and went into New York. His friend wanted to introduce Bayoh to the Landmark Forum, so they attended a free introduction session on it. The Landmark Forum is a series of transformative training courses. Bayoh found what the Landmark Forum offered in the way of education to be something he wanted, but he just didn’t have the money. Sometime later, a representative of the forum called, following up on the introduction session to see if Bayoh wanted to register for a course; the representative even mentioned a payment plan. Bayoh could not afford any of it. However, he felt something inside of him saying “be vulnerable and tell your story”. The representative listened and then told Bayoh he’d call back in 30 minutes.
When he called back, he gave Bayoh the number of a friend to call, someone Bayoh was being invited to meet: James Jay Dudley Luce.
Luce is a millionaire. He runs the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation and is also the founder of Orphans International Worldwide. Bayoh nervously went to Luce’s office. Luce said, “I heard your story and want you to get what you deserve.” After talking with him further, Luce introduced Bayoh to an intern who showed Bayoh how to sort receipts. Later, after all the interns had left, Bayoh continued to work on the project. This impressed Luce. He asked Bayoh, “how would you like to be an intern and be a young global leader?” (a program Luce had). Bayoh took him up on that, asking another friend in New York City if he could stay there, sleeping on the floor, until he could save up enough for an air mattress. Luce even paid for Bayoh to attend the programs in the Landmark Forum.
After completing the forum program, Luce asked Bayoh about his passion. and where he would like to work. Bayoh told him that he wanted to help Sierra Leone and one place he would like to work was at the United Nations. Luce just nodded, but later gave Bayoh the number of a lady at the United Nations. That lady turned out to be “Queen Mother” Dr. Delois Blakely. “She is an institution at the UN,” said Bayoh. Blakely has been at the UN for 51 year and is Ambassador of Goodwill for many African countries. Bayoh recalled the day he met Blakely and she took him inside the UN.
Almost surreally, Bayoh found himself among presidents and ambassadors. Suddenly, Blakeley said to Bayoh that she wanted him to get ready to give a little speech. Bayoh couldn’t believe what she said. He wasn’t prepared, plus look where he was. He was very nervous as he heard Blakely tell those assembled that she had a young man from Sierra Leone who had something to share. Bayoh spoke from his heart and the words about what he’d seen and experienced came to him. To Bayoh’s amazement, when he was done, those assembled applauded. Later, people were asking if he was a country representative or diplomat. Someone asked if Bayoh could be registered as an official Junior UN representative. Later, Bayoh proudly received a UN badge.
Sierra Leone doesn’t have an official youth delegate, so Bayoh represents himself as a Sierra Leonean youth delegate to the youth assembly. Among his accomplishments there are that he has held an executive position on the United Nations Department of Global Communications, Non Governmental Organization division youth committee and has served on the Economic & Social Council Youth Forum.
His UN position is not a paid position, so Bayoh supports himself as a nanny. He enjoys making a difference in young children’s lives. He is also striving to make a difference for Sierra Leone.
Bayoh has started a foundation on GoFundMe, Girl Optimization (www.gofundme.com/girl-optimization) , which he also contributes to with part of his wages as a nanny. The foundation helps girls in Sierra Leone. “I started a foundation which travels to different schools and villages, providing education to girls by awarding them scholarships, providing them academic materials needed to stay in school and all while having an effective learning experience. Discrimination has no place in the 21st century, and I believe every girl has the right to go to school, stay safe from violence, access health services, and fully participate in her community,” said Bayoh.
When asked what he’d like to do with his life, Bayoh said he’d like to become a leader in Sierra Leone, or Secretary-General of the UN.
“Aimless no more, my purpose has been made clear to me; to use the experiences I’ve had as a catalyst for positive change on a global level. I am now a Young Global Leader to the United Nations and stand strong for female empowerment. I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard; for we cannot succeed when half of us are held back. Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. My prayer is that God uses my life as an instrument for good,” said Bayoh.