LIBERIAN LEARNING CENTER
What is the Liberian Learning Center?
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.”
Understanding the Need
For thousands of communities and children in Liberia, a safe space to gather, learn, innovate, and study is merely a dream and the need is unimaginable. There is not a single public library in the entire country, there is only one textbook for every 27 students, only 33% of kids get to experience any form of consistent learning activity, only 22% of public and community schools have seats, literacy rates in Liberia are still among the lowest in the world, less than 40% of Liberian children are enrolled in primary school and further devastation by the just ended Ebola crisis is still being evaluated.
Because Liberia experienced a long civil war, girls and young women are more vulnerable to being a victim of widespread sexual and gender-based violence due to the lack of safe community spaces to engage in after school activities, be with peers and mentors without the danger of becoming victims of violence and sexual abuse. According to Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development, rape and the incidence of sexual violence against women in Liberia is among the highest in the world. Backed by a recent UN report, over half of school aged girls who are victims of rape and sexual violence were lured by teachers or other adult leaders to unsafe spaces under the pretext of helping them with their academics or access to the Internet. Many reported the dangers of trying to find electricity at night to study often far away from home resulting in attacks and sexual violence on their way home. According to the author of the report, “if we are to build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all, many girls will be saved.”
At home, children get little educational support from their parents, more than one-third of whom have never attended school themselves. With these challenges compounded by the just ended Ebola crisis, which resulted in complete shutdown of the entire country, the recovery effort will be hard and long. The government of Liberia and international partners have identified educational support, health services and infrastructure development as the three key pillars for the long-term post Ebola recovery strategy, which is in alignment with the objectives of the Liberian Learning Center.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have now been transitioned into the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) as a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators to be used by UN member states and development partners in framing their agendas and policies over the next 15 years. The Liberian Learning Center Project has been built on a number these goals. Some of the fundamental SDGs that form the basis of the Liberian Learning Center project are as follows: building and developing resilient infrastructure, fostering social innovation, ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education with emphasis on girls. The model is based on a concept that focuses on grassroots empowerment and community development through social change, social impact and social entrepreneurship.