Liberia, a nation of nearly four million on Africa’s west coast between Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, is the continent’s oldest republic. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, its name and history are conduits of hope and transformation, but in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, fierce civil conflict and inter-ethnic war eviscerated a proud nation. More than 750,000 Liberians fled their homeland as refugees. One of those refugees was a fifteen-year-old Leo Johnson.
While most Canadian teenagers unlocked the Internet, watched friends and learned to drive, Leo spent eight years in refugee camps in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In 2006, he resettled in Canada as a Government Sponsored Refugee with a vision to help youth in Canada and Liberia become champions in their communities. In 2007, as a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Leo founded CURE (Care for Underprivileged and Refugee Empowerment) Canada, a not-for-profit organization committed to education, justice and overcoming conflict, particularly within immigrant, refugee and similar underprivileged communities. The organization became Empowerment Squared in 2009 to better reflect the diversity of its work and mission.
Leo’s work with Hamilton’s youth through Empowerment Squared has been recognized for its innovation and impact. He has received the J.C. Holland Award for Youth Leadership and Excellence and the YMCA Peace Medal, been named one of the Hamilton Spectator’s Top 40 Under 40 and one of the top 75 immigrants in Canada, earned a spot as a semi-finalist in the CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister Competition, and served as a guest lecturer in the University of Toronto’s Global Health course.
Now, Leo has added an ambitious bi-continental project to his mission of building communities and opportunities for youth. Liberia is now emerging from its decades of conflict, with the scars and destruction still very much a part of daily life. The 2005 election of Her Excellency the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a Harvard-educated Nobel Peace Prize winner – signalled a potential renaissance for Liberia, but the country lacks many of the fundamental tools required to inspire, educate and equip its youth to build a better future. The desire to provide those critical tools is the motivation behind the Liberian Learning Center project, which will involve the construction of a new community‐learning center and a public library in Paynesville at the cost of two million dollars.