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Places of Hope

Sam Johnson '09

In 1998, when he was just 9-years-old, Sam Johnson watched from a hilltop as his village burned. His father lay dead somewhere below, one of the countless victims of rebel mayhem sweeping across Liberia. His mother hurried her five young children into the forest; then she led her family north, traveling at night to have a better chance of avoiding the roving militias.

In 1998, when he was just 9-years-old, Sam Johnson watched from a hilltop as his village burned. His father lay dead somewhere below, one of the countless victims of rebel mayhem sweeping across Liberia. His mother hurried her five young children into the forest; then she led her family north, traveling at night to have a better chance of avoiding the roving militias.

The Johnsons were the lucky ones. They actually made it to the U.N. refugee camp at N’zerekore, in southern Guinea, where Sam, his mother, and siblings spent the next eight years living in a tent, receiving one small ration of food per day, and hoping against hope for deliverance.

In February of 2007, the children’s mother also passed away, one month before the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees transported them to Clarkston, Ga., east of Atlanta. That’s where they came to the attention of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

Sam received his high school diploma in 2009, then enrolled in Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He took every course he could, even quitting the soccer team—leaving the game he loved and excelled at—to focus on his studies. 

“I wanted to learn everything,” he says. “Like when you don’t have food, I was craving education.”

Sam graduated Mercer in 2013 after a remarkable career that included quadruple majors—Political Science, International Relations, Women’s and Gender Studies and French. His next step was something he’d dreamed about since he set foot on the plane six years earlier in Conakry, Guinea; he returned to the camp in which he’d spent his childhood, the first step of his plan to help those who’d been left behind. 

“I kept my dream alive and saved up money during college,” Sam says. “I had work-study and worked during the summer, and when I graduated, I had about $2,000 to help with.” 

After sharing his story with a number of Mercer faculty and friends, he received donations which brought that total above $5,000.

With the wars in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone over, the U.N. had ended its mission in the camp, and the people who’d been marooned there, who had nothing and no one to return to in their native countries, had created de facto villages in its place. 

But they faced the same problems as before—a lack of safe water and no schooling for the children. They were also less than welcome in Guinean society, treated as outsiders and not allowed access to most government services. Sam’s first trip back to Guinea lasted six months, and he discovered that little had changed. 

“Same as when I was living there, people had diarrhea, dysentery, parasites, and I knew the problem was water,” he says. “Bathing and doing dishes and drinking from the river, that’s how people get sick.” 

With the money he’d saved, Sam hired a local company to build a well that now provides clean water in the camp.

His primary goal, however, was to provide education and a safe living situation for the orphaned children in N’zerekore who, just as he’d experienced as a child, were not welcome in the local schools. Receiving no help or interest from Guinean officials, Sam decided to take matters into his own hands. 

He returned to America and, with the help of friends and former teachers, founded My Vision for Refugees, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to improving the lives and prospects of the children, allowing them to stay together and attend school, while also having the support of each other, their teachers and house parents. In 2014, Sam married Mary Thompson, a native of Ghana who works for AT&T in Atlanta, and who now also serves as secretary of My Vision for Refugees, Inc. Sam divides his time between Guinea and Atlanta, overseeing construction and administrative needs in N’zerekore, and raising support for My Vision in America.

***This article was written by Nick Roberts, former Torchbearer editor, and was taken with permission from Sam Johnson's website myvision4refugees.org.