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Leo Johnson will see his family for the first time in 13 years this summer, and he doesn’t know what to make of it.
The 27-year-old is planning to return to Monrovia, Liberia, at the end of June but he hasn’t even told his mother yet.
“The truth is I don’t know (how I feel). And I’m trying not to know. I’m just going to go and take things as I see them,” Johnson said Saturday night. “I’ve been away for 13 years now and I’m keeping it that way until I go down there and see what the reality is.”
Johnson fled his civil-war-torn country when he was a teenager, spent four years in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and another four years in a refugee camp in Ghana.
He arrived in Hamilton as a government-sponsored refugee in 2006. It wasn’t until a year after that Johnson was able to reconnect with his family.
But the active community volunteer is returning home not only for personal reasons — Empowerment Squared, a nonprofit organization Johnson co-founded in 2007, is looking to build the country’s first postwar library in Paynesville, which is east of the capital.
After three years of research, the development stage of the project is complete and the group is set to officially launch the project with a site development plan, Johnson said.
They need to raise about $1 million to build the facility, which they are calling the Samuel Morris Memorial Library and Community Center.
Johnson and another board member will be meeting with the Liberian president’s office, the Ministry of Education, nonprofit organizations and local youth to put the plan in motion while he’s in Liberia.
On Saturday, Empowerment Squared and other colleagues and friends of Johnson organized An Evening in Support of Leo Johnson, featuring music and the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, at the Globe Youth Centre.
Johnson decided to donate the proceeds of that event to the site development of the library project.
The library will include multimedia resources, audio recordings and transcribed works to preserve Liberia’s oral culture of poems and stories, he said.
“Because of almost 20 years of long civil war, a lot of that has gone missing and a lot more is in danger of being lost forever,” he said. “So the library is not just going to be a room full of books … It’s more like a cultural archive.”
The organization is currently in the middle of speaking with potential partners, such as some “key universities”, he said.
“This is a huge and very important project to Leo,” said Empowerment Squared’s communication director, Hali Farah.
“It just goes to show that whoever you are, whatever you do, anything is possible,” she said. “His list of accomplishments — people who have been here 20, 30 years haven’t even done anything close to that.”
Johnson arrived in Hamilton on his own with a refugee-camp-level high school education. He was accepted to McMaster University’s political science program just seven months after arriving in Canada, was employed part-time at TD bank a year later and has since volunteered with various local groups.
He became a Canadian citizen last June — his ticket home to see his mom.
Johnson will tell his mother he is returning before he flies, but over the weekend was overwhelmed by thoughts of the imminent reunion.
“I don’t want to think about all the expectations and reactions,” he said. “Let’s just keep it the way it is for now.”
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