Determination and resilience of a former refugee girl
In the early 2000s at Buduburam Camp, most people knew her as the ‘bread girl.’ This nine-year-old used to carry bread and pastries baked by her mum to sell in and around the camp just so her family could make ends meet. Most days before and after school, Thelma had to go vending pastries, making her always late for classes.
According to Thelma, growing up with her mum, a single parent, and three other siblings in a camp setting was challenging. She recounted how she and her siblings used to queue for UNHCR food rations at the camp. She even remembers her UNHCR case number and that of her family members.
‘Sometimes the queues were so long I exchanged positions with my siblings when I got tired, or we used stones to block our slots in the queue, which mostly resulted in fights during food distribution.’
Born in Liberia in 1992, Thelma Ahamba was the fourth child of her mother. When war ravaged Liberia in the early 1990s, her uncle’s position as a political figure in Liberia made them an easy target. The family decided to flee to Ghana for safety. Between 1993 and 2001, they kept returning to Liberia, hoping things would improve until 2001 when they finally decided to register as refugees and stay in the camp at Buduburam in Ghana, as the situation back home was not the best.
Her mum had to engage in income-generating activities to support the family. Baking came easily because she had learned the skill from her mother. Thelma says her two sisters were shy of selling and hated it when people referred to them as ‘bread girls,’ but interestingly, Thelma loved the name.
“It was not like I was selling for fun. I was selling with a purpose. When I carried the bread on my head and went out there, I returned with money, and we got some cash to go to school.”
For Thelma, the fact that her effort was generating some income to support her mum to take care of them through school was fulfilling.
Because of selling before and after school, I never got time to sit in a library to study. There was always some work to be done at home, so when I wanted to learn, I sneaked to the washroom, and that was the one place I had the peace of mind to concentrate and study for a few minutes.
After completing her secondary education in 2009, she could not immediately enter the University as times were hard for the family.
She said their mum rationed their education because she could not afford for all of them to be in school simultaneously. Further compounding the problem was a notion people had in the camp at the time that once a refugee gets sponsored by UNHCR, they automatically block their resettlement chances and will not get to go to America or Canada.
“People told my mother that when she allowed me to go to the university, our resettlement chances would be blocked, and I may fall into the wrong company engaging in prostitution and other vices.”
According to Thelma, UNHCR and Partners had rolled out many initiatives to help improve the lives of refugees in the camp. However, this misinformation made most of them miss out on some of these life-changing initiatives.
The turning point for Thelma was the day when she saw one of her friends whom she had sat in the same class with at the camp market. Her friend had gotten the opportunity to be enrolled in the University.
“When I saw my friend, wearing her neatly ironed attire and holding a pile of textbooks, looking all refined, I couldn’t help but cry bitterly. I hid behind one of the stalls and cried because I had the same opportunity as her.’
She had missed out on the first opportunity to enroll for the DAFI scholarship because of the misinformation in the camp at the time, and her mum will not endorse her enrollment . A whole academic year passed, and her situation and her family did not change for good. She had to continue selling bread. So, the year after, when she heard about the opportunity presenting itself again, she decided to go against her mother’s orders and applied for the scholarship. She had to fall on a friend who helped her with the money needed to pick up admission forms at the African University College of Communication (AUCC) in Accra. It was such a joyous occasion when she made it through the interview selection for the scholarship.
She later moved from AUCC to Wisconsin University in Accra, graduating in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing.
According to Thelma, aside from the payment of fees by DAFI, the scholarship package included stipends per semester, health insurance coverage, hostel fees, and books. She said this gave her a hundred percent opportunity to concentrate on her studies.
With all the experiences she had picked up from selling bread in the camp, Thelma got into the University very clear about the courses she wanted to sign up for. Unlike others who were moving from one course to another because their friends were going in for those courses, Thelma knew what she wanted.
“The DAFI scholarship was the genesis of the refined Thelma. DAFI did not only pay my school fees but also allowed me to have access to the rich network of people I have access to now. They allowed me to build meaningful relationships in society.”
For Thelma, this was a giant leap as she was the first to acquire a bachelor’s degree in her family.
Today, Thelma works with one of Liberia’s biggest mobile telephony networks as a Data and Device Specialist. She is also a Digital Marketing Strategist and an Author.
Her first published book ‘The Drive’ was recently launched. The book talks about the passion, struggles, and success of a refugee girl.
Married with two children, Thelma is relentless in her pursuit of success and determined to continue making her mother proud.
Now a former refugee, Thelma says being a refugee was just a status, and she did not allow that to affect her in any way.
“When people hear the word ‘refugee,’ there is some discrimination that pops in their heads. But then, if you look in my class then, I was part of the top five. Refugee just means I have a change of place or a change of country; I fled for safety. It doesn’t make me less intelligent.”
Looking back, Thelma says she wouldn’t change anything because if you take that away from her experience, she wouldn’t be the Thelma she is today.
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