Damba Koroma has never let her missing left arm stop her from whipping up a meal, but for the first time in the 18-year-olds life shes using two hands in the kitchen.
With a little help from the Limb for Life Foundation, a nonprofit that fits artificial appendages for those without real ones, Koroma had her prosthetic left arm retooled with a universal fitter.
Now she can swap out knives, whisks and cheese graters as needed not unlike changing drill bits whether at home or during her culinary classes at T.C. Williams High School.
Some areas were a struggle, like cutting the onions and vegetables, she said. You get to a point where it gets harder to cut, but with the prosthetic arm and tools it makes it real easy for me to hold and cut.
An ambitious student with college and a career on her mind, the high school senior speaks with an accent betraying the brutality of her childhood. Growing up in the midst of the Sierra Leone Civil War, Koroma vividly remembers the day she lost her arm. She and her mother heard gunshots echo through their West African village as they settled in to prepare a soup.
At first they thought soldiers were playing war games, but later realized rebels were raiding the town. The guerillas herded them all the villagers into the town center after ransacking their homes.
They wanted money and valuables, she recalled.
The leader of the group, he called me up first and said I was going to be an example, Koroma said. He laid my hand on the root of the cotton tree and cut it off.
Koroma was no more than four, maybe five.
The leader of the group said we should go to the government and they would provide new hands, she said. They were burning housing. They were beating up people and raping women.
Her parents later stopped the bleeding by wrapping the wound in tobacco leaves. Koroma spent the next several years traveling from one refugee camp to another, fleeing rebel attacks and begging for food.
Finally, in September of 2000, the Rotary Club paid to have Koroma flown to the States to be fitted for a prosthetic arm. It was supposed to be a short trip, but as Sierra Leone struggled to recover from the crippling war, U.S. officials found a home Koroma in Alexandrias West End.
Jordon Street residents Sahr Pombor and his wife, Josephine, took Koroma in and raised her with their own children.
The country was still trying to heal. Nothing was stable or guaranteed, said Sahr Pombor. The only way they could stay was if they could find families to take them She stayed here and is still going to school and achieving with great success.
Pombor credits Koromas upbringing here and in Sierra Leone with her prowess in the kitchen. Whether they eventually become doctors or lawyers, all women in Sierra Leone learn to cook from birth, he said.
She took to it so well Pombor jokes he cant tell the difference between his adoptive daughters cooking and his wifes.
I just think its really nice or cool to start from scratch and you end up with something delicious and really good, she said.
Chef Craig Scheuerman, Koromas culinary teacher at T.C., is amazed with her ability and her dedication. He compared her to Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, who went pro despite only having one hand.
I cant imagine [how she does it], he said. I didnt realize she had one hand until three days into the class last year.
Koroma doesnt see her culinary skill going any farther than a hobby. Rather, she wants to dedicate her life to service, by going into law enforcement or medicine.
I have a passion for helping people so I want a career where I can help out people, she said.
Until then, shell keep the home fires burning at T.C.