Posted by Steve Lettau on Sep 20, 2022

by Dinah Eng

Fifteen-year-old Leo Nupolu Johnson was in school when the shooting began. It was 18 September 1998, and the country of Liberia was poised between two civil wars: the one that had ended in 1997 and the second that would begin in 1999. Now, in Monrovia, the capital, Liberia’s president had launched a violent attack to eliminate his rivals.

As the fighting accelerated, Johnson fled the school, and in the chaos that followed he was separated from his family. Ultimately he landed in a refugee camp in Côte d’Ivoire. Years would pass before he saw his family again.

Today, Johnson, 39, can reflect on his past from his home in Hamilton, Ontario. As the founder and executive director of Empowerment Squared — a nonprofit that assists and inspires marginalized youth, many of them newly arrived in Canada — he has begun to fulfill a dream he nurtured when he arrived as a refugee in Canada in 2006.

“As a child growing up in Liberia, I never had the experience of what a library looked like,” he recalls in a promotional video for the Liberian Learning Center, currently under construction outside of Monrovia. “Still, as a young man, I had this burning desire that no child should be allowed to go to school without access to books and educational materials. I set out on a journey to make sure that this was going to be a different reality for children going to school in Liberia.”

In 1998, all that lay in the future. Johnson remained in the refugee camp in Côte d’Ivoire until 2002, when civil war broke out there. He fled to the Buduburam camp in Ghana, which was host to approximately 50,000 Liberian refugees. One of the women there, a single mother whom Johnson often helped, was given an immigration document to complete. Because she couldn’t read or write English or French, Johnson filled out her paperwork and served as an interpreter during her interview. As a result, he was allowed to immigrate to Canada with her.