Long before she was on the path to pursuing her dance dreams, she lived in a total nightmare. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone, a small West African country that was ravaged by civil war between 1991 and 2002. When Michaela was just three, her beloved father—”I was a daddy’s girl,” she says—was shot and killed by rebels. Only a week later, her mom died from starvation. An uncle whisked Michaela away to an orphanage, where she became known as Number 27. “We were all ranked from the most favored to the least, and I was at the very bottom for being rebellious and having a skin condition called vitiligo, which produces white freckles on my neck and chest,” she says. “They called me ‘devil child.’ ” She shared a grass sleeping mat with Number 26, a girl named Mia, who was shunned for being left-handed; the two became inseparable.
Horrific violence was the norm each day, according to Michaela, who painfully remembers witnessing the brutal killing of the one teacher at the orphanage who cared for her. “She was pregnant, and the rebels, whom we called ‘debils,’ grabbed her as she left the school grounds. I squeezed through the rails of the gate and tried to go to her rescue, but I was very small and no help at all,” she recalls. “The debils bet on whether her baby was a boy or girl. Then one of them slit her open, pulled out the baby and threw it away, and then cut off my teacher’s arms and left her to die. For years afterward, I feared being chased by debils.”
One windy day, a magazine with a cover photograph of a beautiful, smiling ballerina in a tutu and pointe shoes swept up against a fence in the yard where Michaela played. She tore off the cover and hid it underneath her clothing. “I was in such a bad situation, so the fact that this person was so happy and enjoying life—it made me hope that I could be that happy someday,” she says. When a couple from New Jersey arrived soon afterward to adopt Mia, they were told that Michaela would never find a home, so they adopted her too. “My rebelliousness in Sierra Leone helped me survive there, and it stayed with me until I moved to the States and realized I was in a safe place with caring parents,” she says.
Her childhood sounds like our worst nightmare. fortunately things got better for her in the U.S.
Hit the flip for the story on how she finally realized her ballet dreams.