By Sang Kromah
When you grow up in a refugee camp, your outlook on the world outside your natural habitat tends to differ quite drastically from your peers. Factor in the fact that this refugee camp is a suburban single family home in a development of yuppies, and you have the makings for reality TV quality entertainment and hot town gossip. I wasn’t born in a war-zone in the third world. I was born in Philadelphia and raised in a town in Maryland that’s too small to have its own zip code so it shares with the town next door. It may seem like I’m a privileged Millennial, complaining about non-existent struggles, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. I’m an American girl, but I’m much more than that; I’m a girl who was inspired by a Liberian girl, I’m a girl who had to lose myself in order to find myself, and I’m an American girl with a Liberian mission.
I won’t start by lying, so let me be completely honest. As a kid, I was a spoiled brat. My mother was a dentist, in the US Army, and my dad had a cushy government job, so my younger brother and me were quite comfortable. War erupted in my parent’s native country of Liberia on Christmas Eve of 1989 and everything changed. Our Liberian cousins who vacationed in exotic locations were now displaced with nothing. Friends and family were being slaughtered and tortured, so my parents activated savior mode. They pulled all of their resources to bring family to America, we advocated and demonstrated in Washington on behalf of fellow Liberians. No more country club brunches and family trips, because there were over eighteen people living in our house at any given time. Food, clothing, mission trips, and money transfers were the priority. There were short periods of time, where our home was truly “our house”, but we always knew that as long as there was instability in Liberia, the number of occupants in our home could fluctuate at any given minute.
The revolving door of family and strangers, the loss of our normal American life, and the constant news of tragedy became something I resented greatly until my parents adopted my orphaned cousin, KP. She became a true big sister to me. I taught her the importance of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the girl power movement, along with the ick factor of the “Macarena”, and she taught me how to cook Liberian staples like fried potato greens and meat pies. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, but she became well-versed in 90s vernacular and I became well-acquainted with Liberian colloquial English and the harsh realities of being a girl in Liberia.
While KP needed to understand that She’s All That was the most iconic teen movie of our generation, her stories of girls in Liberia being denied the right to education, and being forced into prostitution trumped my lame pop culture references. She told me that almost all of her female friends had experienced some form of sexual violence, and even described some of the atrocities she had seen. Hearing about it was traumatic enough, could you imagine living through it?
My contributions all sound trivial, but KP needed that. She had experienced more than any teenaged girl should ever face, being forced to grow up fast, becoming the caretaker of her dying biological mother and younger siblings, so my nonsensical banter about TRL and Buffy was a necessity.
We devised a plan. KP was going to become a nurse and I was going to study English and Communications to eventually relocate to Liberia to start our own school for at-risk girls. We were both in college, diligently working towards our goal when KP passed away. You see, because of the war and the deplorable situations she was exposed to, KP’s liver became irrevocably damaged. My parents took KP to specialist after specialist and she finally received a liver transplant, only to die a year later.
I was devastated. We were all devastated. I became the anywhere but here girl, traveling from place to place, unable to be home, and unable to think of Liberia for a long time. After grad school, I became a Project Manager for my parents’ nonprofit organization, Resources and Outreach for Liberia (ROL). The organization wanted me to go to Liberia to open ROL’s office and implement programs, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I helped Liberia from the United States.
When I fully immersed myself into ROL, I realized I was still very angry and since writing has always been therapeutic for me, I began to create reincarnations of Liberian folklore, combining it with other remnants of my twisted imagination and three months later, I realized I had written an entire novel. In 2011, my book, Concealed was published by an indie publisher, and it gained enough buzz that it got the attention of the production company, who was producing the Half the Sky documentary, based on the Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn book, Half the Sky: Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I was asked to transcribe the Liberian portions of the documentary. Initially, I thought “yay money” and nothing else, but as I began to watch the stories of the amazing Liberian women, who completed Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women program for female entrepreneurs, something sparked within me. That love I once felt for Liberia was reborn as I watched listened to the stories of women, who have literally been through hell and back.
For the first time in a long time, I was ready to stop running. I had a destination and it was Liberia. I needed to follow through with the plan I had devised with KP. I was introduced to one of Liberia’s hardest working women, Barkue Tubman, and she told me that she was working with UN Women and asked me to volunteer. I created a concept called, “I am the 12th Man”, using the common football term that represents the teams fans/supporters to refer to the men of the community who will support women on the issue of gender-based violence. UN Women loved the concept and created an entire campaign behind the concept. That was the sign I needed to move to Liberia.
I worked full-time and freelance in Liberia, developing and implementing a reading room program and a teen mentoring group for girls in hopes of creating lifelong readers in a country with a devastatingly low literacy rate and giving girls a place where they can freely express themselves and get advice. I’ve seen things that I can never unsee; young girls selling themselves on the streets, little girls selling goods in the street to support their families, and much worse. But even with all of that, I fell in love with Liberia, and realized it’s where I needed to be. I need to be there to make it better, but in 2014, Liberia was hit by the Ebola epidemic, bringing me back to the United States, but if anything, coming back home only made me work harder.
In 2014, I was appointed as Executive Director of Resources and Outreach for Liberia, creating and spearheading Project READ (Restoration Education And Development) with a goal of creating a series of safe places in Liberia for girls; starting with a drop-in center for at-risk girls in Monrovia (Nedra House) and a library. The Nedra House will be a drop-in center for girls who are at-risk or have been exposed to sexual violence. Nedra House will fight to end the epidemic of sexual violence against girls in Liberia by turning victims into survivors and implementing programs that will help prevent the victimization of at-risk girls.
The drop-in center will also have mentoring and community outreach programs, arts programs, a crisis hotline, and career training/workshops with special after-hour accommodations for special cases. To support this initiative, you can make a donation via PayPal, comment on our posts, share our links to get the word out there or become a volunteer. We have acquired well over 10,000 books for the program’s library and research center, and collected feminine hygiene products for the program so far. I am passionate about this initiative because it will provide a safe haven for girls in Liberia. We have even been featured on Baltimore’s ABC2 News.
Our first global social change initiative, Project: GirlSpire, whose mission is to pass on empowerment through literature and the arts, from girl to girl, from nation to nation. Project: GirlSpire launched its blog in August 2015 and is putting together an anthology of stories written by female writers to inspire girls around the world. Once published, all proceeds will go to Project READ.
It’s inevitable that loss will change you, but the how is entirely up to you.
At the end of the day, I guess I am a privileged American girl…an American girl privileged enough to find a cause I am passionate about and a way to make a difference.
Want to know more about Project READ? Visit the website, Like Project READ on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. Donations to Project READ can be made by visiting our website and clicking on our PayPal link.