From child soldier to entrepreneur: new cafe latest peace project for Emmanuel Jal

Hip-hop artist, activist and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal is sharing his message of peace at his new cafe in Moss Park.

Hip-hop artist shares philosophy of gratitude, forgiveness at Moss Park cafe

Hip-hop artist, former child soldier, and entrepreneur Emmanuel Jal stands in his new cafe, Jal Gua, in Moss Park. (CBC News/Craig Chivers)

Emmanuel Jal wants to start a revolution — and he's opened a cafe in Moss Park where it can begin.

Named Jal Gua, which means "walk in peace" in the Naath language of East Africa, the cafe is the latest project in the former child soldier's quest to create the life that was stolen from him as a boy.

"You know, most revolutions happen in cafes," Jal told Matt Galloway, host of CBC's Metro Morning. "Big ideas come from there."

Emmanuel Jal prepared some "poor man's soup" for Metro Morning's Matt Galloway at his new cafe. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The hip-hop artist, activist and author survived a brutal and bloody civil war in South Sudan that took his family's life and, at eight years old, forced him to become a child soldier. At 12, he was rescued by a British aid worker and smuggled into Kenya, where he discovered his love for music.

His memoir, War Child, and a documentary of the same name, both unflinchingly chronicled Jal's journey from a child trained to use an AK-47 to award-winning global performer and peace activist. Four years ago, Jal immigrated to Canada and started putting down roots in Toronto.

Proceeds go to war survivors

The Jal Gua menu is inspired by Jal's homeland. Most dishes feature an ingredient he created – a powdered blend of sorghum and moringa, two staples in African cooking.

Vibrant African art hangs on the walls alongside photos of Jal with the Dalai Lama, music legend Peter Gabriel, and actress Reese Witherspoon, with whom he starred in the 2014 film The Good Lie about the child soldiers of Sudan.

Jal calls himself an "accidental entrepreneur" who hadn't planned to open a cafe, but says he who now sees the value of the business among his many projects advocating for the children of Sudan.

Some of the cafe's proceeds go to a charity Jal founded that builds schools in East Africa and provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps.

Peace is when my belly's full.- Emmanuel Jal, hip-hop artist, cafe owner, former child soldier

The cafe's menu also came about because of Jal's struggle with high blood pressure and the early symptoms of diabetes he developed while touring.  

He says embracing a "poor man's" diet based on the basic nutrients of traditional Sudanese dishes turned his health around.  As a child, Jal witnessed others die of starvation; now, he says food is one of his many paths to peace.  

"Peace is when my belly's full."

Becoming a mentor to new refugees

Next month Jal will launch a mentorship program at the cafe with Matthew House, a Toronto agency that supports newly-arrived refugees seeking asylum in Canada.  

Young refugees will learn about the philosophy Jal has created to help him move forward from his past.  It focuses on finding a purpose and serving others.

"Success means surrendering yourself to a cause bigger than you," he says.

Karen Francis, Matthew House's executive director, says she's seen an influx of young people arriving alone from Eritrea and Ethiopia who could benefit from Jal's experience

"Who better to mentor our refugee youth than someone who uniquely understands the challenges they've had to overcome just to get here?" she asks. "He understands what they're walking through."

His advice for new refugees is simply to have patience.  

"If you want to make it, it's a slow process. Because probably in your heart, you're bitter. And that bitterness takes a space in your mind. It takes a lot of energy from you.  Maybe you feel you're not worthy.  Maybe you're angry."

"Canada has blessed me"

The answer, he says, is practicing gratitude and forgiveness.

"If you know how to explore your mind, and begin to remove hatred from it, begin to remove bitterness from it and allow no negative things to dwell in your mind, then you can focus on the dream."

Jal says he's looking for ways to repay the immense support he's received from Canadians in and out of the music industry.

Before becoming a permanent resident in Canada, Jal hadn't had status in any country since he was a young child.

Now, he says, this country is giving him the opportunity to create his own path.

"My past is ugly. My past is tormenting. But I've been given opportunities.  Now I can paint the beautiful future I want to see."