What I learned from a refugee camp in West Africa
I grew up with my parents in the Kouankan refugee camp in the West African country of Guinea.
We went to Kouankan to evade the civil war in our home country, Liberia, which borders Guinea. I went from living in a relatively homogenous community to one where people spoke different languages and practiced different cultures.
It was difficult at first because I had trouble understanding and relating to the people around me. As someone who values having conversations and spending time with others, it was tough for me to have my social interactions limited by language and cultural barriers.
But I embraced my new, diverse community and used my love of football to help me connect with the other refugees.
The refugee camp protected me from violence
Each year, our camp celebrated the anniversaries of the African Union and the United Nations. These festivals brought different zones of the camp together to appreciate our diversity and to remember our commonalities as Africans.
On these days, I joined other children my age to represent the zone seven football team. Our shared love for the game united us and alleviated our worries and struggles. I enjoyed having the opportunity to have fun with the other refugees and to get to know one another.
The refugee camp protected me from the violence of the seemingly endless war in Liberia, but life inside the camp was not easy.
I often went to sleep on an empty stomach and had to work a number of backbreaking jobs to make ends meet. I gathered wood from the forest to sell, and I plowed farmlands for my neighbors.
My parents’ advanced ages prevented them from assisting with this physical work, so much of the responsibility fell on me. I was forced to mature fast to provide food and clothing for myself and my family.
I learned to be self-sufficient and resilient
When I encountered challenges in my post-refugee life, I had flashbacks to my struggles at Kouankan. Still, I was grateful for my experience in the refugee camp.
For one, through it, I learned to be self-sufficient and resilient amidst challenges. When my family returned home to Liberia — after seven years in exile — our hardship followed us. Rather than being discouraged by that situation, I continued supporting my family by selling kerosene, rice-bread, candles and boiled eggs in the streets for hours each day.
Second, I learned how to live with people from a variety of cultures. This enabled me to cope with the varied ethnic groups in post-war Liberia, despite the prejudice against my ethnic group, Mandingo, for being predominantly Muslim.
Third, I became more empathetic to the struggles of others and decided that I wanted to help create a more exciting and sustainable future for Liberian youth.
My experiences in West Africa have taught me the value of diversity
For four consecutive years, I have worked with the Liberia Educational and Sustainable Development Goals Initiative to organize quiz bowls, debates and local spelling bees, through which high school students in five different counties can explore their academic talents and interests.
Through my service work, I have learned more about the challenges affecting Liberia, including poor education and youth disempowerment. In the future, I aspire to develop more ground-breaking solutions to improve education in Liberia and to empower Liberian youth.
I hope to establish free schools around the country with modern learning facilities, to help the thousands of out-of-school Liberian children discover and pursue their scholastic passions.
My experiences in Guinea as a refugee, and in Liberia after the civil war, not only taught me the power of resilience and the value of diversity but also inspired me to help others and to work to ameliorate my community.
I hope to thrive at the African Leadership Academy to use this vision to shift the narrative of Liberia and Liberian youth.
Varlee S. Fofana is a student at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. He is a Liberian who lived in Kouankan, Guinea, as a refugee during the Liberian Civil War. From this experience, he became inspired to write stories. He is one of 10 scholars in the SMART Liberia Educational Advancement College Readiness Program and an alumnus ambassador of the Yale Young African Scholars.
His account of growing up in a refugee camp won First Prize in News Decoder’s 8th Storytelling Contest. News Decoder is an educational news service that helps young people make sense of international news.
Liberia’s Civil War broke out in December 1989. Around 750,000 Liberian civilians became either internally displaced or refugees, before peace was restored in 2003. Some 155,560 returned voluntarily between 2004 and 2012, with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.