While most teenagers were surfing the web, watching friends and learning to drive, Leo Johnson spent eight years in refugee camps, after fleeing war-torn Liberia in 1998. He still remembers reading by a streetlight in his youth as the only means to study. He arrived in Canada in 2006 with an unmatched inspiration . A government-sponsored refugee, he was on his own in an unfamiliar (and very cold) place. “I decided I could either carry on with a victim mentality – or be a champion of possibilities.”
He applied to McMaster University and was accepted. “They gave me a shot,” says Leo, who had completed his high school education in the refugee camps. In his second year, he founded Empowerment Squared, a charitable organization that promotes access to education, life long learning, and now groundbreaking educational projects in his native Liberia.
He graduated with a degree in political science in 2011, but not before receiving the Albert Lager Prize for Student Initiative and earning a spot as a semi-finalist in CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister Competition. He’s also received the YMCA Peace Medal, Gandhi Peace Award, World Citizenship Award from the City of Hamilton and has been recognized among the top 75 immigrants in Canada – and he’s been named one of the Hamilton Spectator’s Top 40 under 40.
He was inspired to start the dream of the Liberian Learning Centre project when reading the biography of Samuel Kaboo Morris while in the refugee camp. Samuel was a Liberian prince who moved to the U.S. and went to Taylor University but was unable to fulfill his dream of bringing back education to Liberia due to death. He compares that with the awe of stepping into McMaster University’s library for the first time as a student. “I was scared. You just pick up a book and nobody asks you a question. I couldn’t get over it.”
That experience fuelled him to fulfill a promise he made all those years ago at the refugee camp: build Liberians a space to inspire learning, and bring back new knowledge to a country ripped bare by war and poverty. “We’re asking people to share what we have in so much abundance with places in the world where its non-existent.” He concludes with these words, “it’s been quite a journey.”
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