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A Liberian refugee realizes his dream of establishing a library in his home country


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.

Leo Nupolu Johnson, a member of the Rotary Club of Hamilton, Ontario, is leading the effort to provide a learning center for children in his home country of Liberia.

Photograph: Lucy Lu

“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.

Johnson was accepted at McMaster University in Hamilton, where he studied political science. While there, he noticed that many refugee youths, including some from Liberia, dropped out of high school due to struggles with cultural differences, financial challenges, and pre- and post-migration trauma.

With help from other McMaster students, Johnson started what became Empowerment Squared as a campus club to support and tutor those young students. “My larger goal was always to support newcomer families and the Black community, which was facing similar discouraging outcomes due to poverty and marginalization,” he says.

After graduating from McMaster, Johnson worked at a bank and as a development intern at his alma mater. In 2014, he devoted himself full time to Empowerment Squared, despite experiencing some initial financial hardships. “In 2015, I became the first paid staffer,” he says. “Today, we’re in two locations with 15 staffers.”

In the last decade, Empowerment Squared has supported more than 5,000 newcomer youths and families, and it is turning Johnson’s dream of the Liberian Learning Center into a reality. Which is where Rotary comes in.

Johnson was introduced to Rotary in 2010. After helping with various Rotary projects, he decided to present his idea for building the Liberian Learning Center to the Rotary Club of Hamilton. In the audience at one of his presentations was Paul Takala, the CEO and chief librarian of the Hamilton Public Library and a member of the club’s international service committee.

“When I heard Leo’s vision,” Takala says, “I thought his deep connections with Liberia, along with his experience in Canada, made him uniquely qualified to accomplish a lot of impactful things that could be self-sustaining.” Today, the Hamilton Public Library is one of the learning center’s principal supporters.

  1. Johnson stands in front of the house in Paynesville, Liberia, where he lived as a child.

    Photograph: Courtesy of Leo Nupolu Johnson

  2. Before the conflict in Liberia prompted him to flee the country in 1998, Johnson gathered with his family for a photograph.

    Photograph: Courtesy of Leo Nupolu Johnson

Takala accompanied Johnson to Liberia for the center’s official groundbreaking ceremony in 2019, two years after Johnson joined the Hamilton Rotary club. “The resilience of the Liberian people and their deep connection to Leo and his work was clear,” Takala says. “We can help people improve their world, but if we do it with a sense of mutual sharing and a recognition that we can learn as much from them as they from us, then a lot of small miracles can happen.”

According to Johnson, about a dozen Rotary clubs in Ontario and Liberia have contributed more than $30,000 toward the learning center. And in 2020, the Hamilton club, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Monrovia — which is raising funds for a Rotary room at the library, devoted to the seven areas of focus — secured a global grant of US$87,000 to fund the development of a solar energy grid for the center. In July, Johnson estimated that the first phase of construction on the center should be completed in the next 18-20 months.

“In Rotary, the principle of assisting people comes with the question of sustainability,” says Johnson. The green solar energy is part of the center’s answer to that question, as are its plans to offer classes in personal and professional development, information literacy, computer training, and entrepreneurship. A small-business incubation center, an indoor recreation facility, and the renovation of an existing conference center on the site are also part of the project.

Johnson has since reunited with his family — all of whom stayed in Liberia — and he is proud that his dream has come true. “I hope to inspire other Liberians with the learning center,” he says. “It demonstrates that we can lead the rebuilding of our country and foster socioeconomic prosperity in a sustainable manner through innovation, collaboration, and culturally responsive initiatives.” 

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

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Learn more about how Rotary is helping improve literacy worldwide through the Basic Education and Literacy Rotary Action Group.