I was 23. I moved to Liberia from the USA to work with an NGO. It was my first job after college. I met a lot of kids on the street selling all kinds of things, all of them working to survive. Then, I met Abigail. She was 11. She told me her story. It wrecked me. I’ve never been quite the same. She was an orphan that had grown up with high-class prostitutes; her parents were lost to war like so many others. Liberia had one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history, lasting over 14 years and destroying the entire country’s infrastructure. The economy was desecrated (15% employment rate) and many children were left to fend for themselves. Abigail asked me to help her. She wanted to go to school. I wanted to know more about her life. I asked her to show me where she lived.
Abigail is from one of the most notorious slums in the world. She is from a place I was told I was not allowed to go, West Point. West Point is home to 100,000 squatters who live in make-shift rooms and has a reputation that precedes its name. I was told, “Nothing good can come from West Point!” That it was home to the former child soldiers and that it was where all the criminals lived.
Walking into this extremely dense slum is like getting slapped in the face. Every one of your senses is under attack. People push wheelbarrows of handmade soap and used underwear for sale. Music blares from an old tape player with a guy trying to sell mix tapes. Countless children in tattered clothes play, laughing with their friends during school hours. School isn’t free, so they’re not in school. You smell fresh food and spices for sale along the side of the one tiny road that runs like a U-shape through the slum. You also can smell feces because there are no bathrooms. Everything about West Point is raw. There is no hiding there.
After building trust with Abigail, she told me that all she really wanted in life was to go to school, have a teddy bear and have a safe place to sleep where someone she loved looked after her. I couldn’t turn my back on her. I paid her school fees, bought her a teddy bear and found her a new place to live. Then she brought her friends, and they brought more friends. I couldn’t do it alone. I would share edited versions of these girls’ stories on social media and people would send me money to help the girls go to school. These were people living in the most extreme poverty in the world and I was invited in by the community. I had a responsibility to do something. My organization couldn’t do everything, so I decided to do the thing that had the highest return on investment – the thing that pulled at my heart the most – focus on helping girls get an education. I decided to start a school for girls.
President Sirleaf donated a building and came to its opening (my mom even flew in from New Jersey)! Things in West Point were harsh, but there was hope, the girls were going to a great school, they were safe and most of all, they had a future!
Or so we all thought.
Then, Ebola hit. At first it was just in remote Liberia and I wasn’t scared for our students, but it wasn’t long before that deadly virus made its way to the most densely populated area in West Africa: Abigail’s neighborhood. Ebola came to West Point.
I couldn’t just stand on the sidelines and wait to hear if the girls at our school were dead or not. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Instead, I fought with everything I had for their lives, alongside the community. For 6 months, we ran ambulance services, an outreach center, paid healthcare workers and filled gaps where we could. We tried to bring dignity to death, when there was nothing more we could do. Over 10,000 people died during Ebola, but thankfully none of our students died. Three, however, lost their families and none of us will be the same as a result.
We are not allowed to cry, to take pictures, to come in and come out and not to demand change. Ebola is now under control in Liberia, but the broken infrastructure that led to Ebola’s terrifying effectiveness still persists. The social and economic problems that allowed Ebola to be as devastating as it was must be addressed. West Point is more broken than ever, and it is only a matter of time before the next crisis arises if we don’t address the root problems that exist. This starts with education.
My team and I are now working closely with the Ministry of Education to fight to make sure every single child in Liberia will have access to a quality education. It is these children who will grow up and lead the Health Ministry or the Justice Ministry; they will man the hospitals, fix the roads, and engineer electricity.
If we succeed in rebuilding the education system – and we plan to – these children will go on to lead the systemic change that Liberia needs to thrive. They will usher in an era of stability, of furthered peace, of economic growth and of opportunity that Liberia deserves but has been denied for far too long.
We can and must do more,