When the war came to Liberia in 1989, Saah Joseph was just 14 years old. Rebels shot both of his parents. He escaped, and walked for nine days to a refugee camp in Sierra Leone. Joseph lived in the camp for 10 years.
Then the war came to Sierra Leone. Rebels attacked the refugee camp, looking for young boys to capture and turn into soldiers. Joseph fled again and escaped to Guinea. But the war came to Guinea, too. His life was a blur of West African countries and refugee camps.
When he returned to Sierra Leone, he was arrested for being a Liberian. Government officials couldn’t tell who was a rebel fighter or who was a refugee so they threw them in jail indiscriminately. Joseph, who became a Christian when he was young, began leading morning devotions. Prison officials made him the Chaplain, which got him out of his cell more often.
“I was happy to go around because I got to feel the cool breeze on my face,” he said.
A local pastor took responsibility for Joseph, and the government released Joseph from prison. He left for Senegal and survived by begging on the streets before finding refuge in a center run by Baptist missionaries. For the first time in five years, he had food every day.
When he received word that his mother had survived her gunshot wound and was living in Sierra Leone, he rushed to her. Joseph, who had always been determined to learn as much as he could, began opening Christian schools for children to attend for free.
He has helped open 22 Christian schools that offer free education for more than 6,500 students in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Joseph also began a Women’s Empowerment Program that rescues young women from prostitution and teaches them a skill.
Joseph has spent the last 15 years speaking on behalf of Liberia’s children, and he called for help during his visit to George Fox on Dec. 8. “By the grace of God, we can work together,” he said. “Total peace will be from equal opportunities for everyone. With your involvement in Liberia, we can do this.”
His new mission is to raise the materials, volunteers and money to build a community college.
Here’s a short Q&A session I had with Joseph after his presentation:
What is the mood like in Liberia now that the civil war is over?
“People are hoping it will get better. Everyone is praying to God that someone will do something. There are so many needs. That is why I’m taking the initiative to talk to people, not for myself, but for my brothers and sisters in Liberia.”
What was your life like after your parents were shot and you had to live in refugee camps?
“It was difficult for me, living on my own for 10 years with no parental care. It was very difficult. I managed to be focused and continued to move ahead. My focus was to get as much education as I could. Then I could make a difference for the future. I tried very hard not to lose focus.”
How do you keep going in those kinds of circumstances?
“We have a saying: As long as there is life, there is hope. I still hope things can be better. Many of my friends died; I thank God that I am living. I ask, ‘What opportunities can I look for to give back to my country and brothers and sisters?’ I have a great opportunity to come to the U.S. I appreciate that God gives me this. I think God is using that to make me be in this position for a purpose.”
How many people are your schools and programs helping?
“In Sierra Leone, 3,500 students. In Liberia, 3,200. Our programs for women and ex-combatants, 1,200. We teach them tailoring, hairdressing, catering, carpentry and soap making. We hope to add computer programming in the future.”
What is the biggest need right now?
“One of our greater needs is a community college. That will bring great change in our country. Education should be a right. If people have access to school, they will not have to be beggars and prostitutes. There is no war, but people are still downhearted. They are not happy. Many families can’t afford one meal a day. If our youth remain unemployed, the possibility to go back to fighting is there.”
How can people help?
“We need volunteers to come help with training. Materials to run the institution, books, teachers, people to help run the schools. I hope people accept our cry to help our youth.”
You can reach Saah Joseph by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Donate directly by visiting http://mountbarclaycommunityproject.org/
See Saah Joseph as he gives a tour around the Mount Barclay school in Liberia