Liberia is a country struggling to rebuild after 15 years of civil war. Thomas George, a senior finance major and member of the soccer team at Radford University, is working to connect students at RU with the impoverished students of Liberia through donations and support.
George went on a mission trip over spring break to Liberia with the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), an organization working to help war-torn countries in Africa and the Junior Lone Stars, an organization based in Philadelphia whose mission is to help immigrant children adjust and find success in the US.
George left Liberia when he was three months old because of the civil war. This was his first trip back in 15 years.
After a 12-hour flight from Atlanta, he stepped off the plane and the first thing that hit him was the heat.
“It was so different from my expectation,” he said. “Like my reaction was just wow, it was shocking.”
Liberia is a small country in Africa with a population of about 3 million people. According to George, the country’s reputation is that it is the stepchild of the United States because of the country’s ancestry, principals, government, flag and money. The country began as a group of freed American slaves who moved back to Africa and started their own culture.
George arrived in Liberia around 6 p.m. on a Sunday and immediately met up with his uncle who took him to a church service and showed him different churches that had been built by mission teams before his.
Monday, George visited an elementary school, where he interacted with over 30 children and taught a math lesson. Later that day he visited students at a high school and spoke to them about their education.
“I learned something that was very very shocking,” George said. “One guy told me that in the US you know how we have a syllabus and you can basically fail the final exam and still pass the class, but over there if you fail the final you have to take the class over. So I’m meeting with kids that are 19 or 20 and are still in high school. That’s why the rate of people going to college is so low there, because they try and try and eventually just give up.”
In Liberia there are two universities, The University of Liberia — the larger of the two with 1,300 students in attendance — and a nursing college that is the sister college of the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens through a program called University Consortium.
“It’s very competitive there,” George said. “The curriculum is like so difficult and they have so much less resources than we have, you know? We have computers and libraries, they have like nothing and they have to strive for perfection basically. It was a very humbling experience.”
George and his group were working to make education easier for the children by getting them books and supplies.
He said that he got a different perspective of the situation when he started working with the students.
“One little boy I talked to there, he had to bring his own little bench to school with him from home because there weren’t enough seats at the school so he had to bring it with him just to be able to sit in class.”
The third day the group met with government officials to try to advocate for the students and the schools to get them the funding and resources they need.
“Most teachers here get paid every month, but some of the teachers we met with there hadn’t been paid in two or three months because the school funding is like zero to none,” George said. “They were getting nothing at all.”
George was there to help figure out how to connect the government to ACANA in order to provide relief instead of going over the government’s head because the relationship between the government and the citizens of Liberia is so tense and hostile.
In 2005, the civil war that devastated the country ended, and now the Liberians are working to recover and rebuild. They have their first stable president in over 20 years. Liberia’s economy is similar to most impoverished countries according to Global Finance magazine; 10% of Liberians hold the wealth and power in the country and the other 90% live in poverty.
“Some of the houses were almost like huts,” George said. “No running water, no electricity, people taking showers outside, no sewer systems. Nothing.”
Liberia has 14 different tribes. One tribe is Americo-Liberians, the ancestors of freed slaves from the US, and they make up most of the country’s government and wealth.
“When 90% of the population is indigenious it’s really hard for the government to connect with the people and for them to cooperate,” George said. “That’s what we were there trying to do, trying to connect the government to the people so they can communicate.”
Since coming back to RU, George is working to get businesses involved in raising money and awareness of the struggles Liberian students go through.
His biggest contribution so far is a campaign to collect used cellphones and sell them to a buyer for $100 each. Any funds raised through that sale go straight to ACANA and Junior Lone Stars.
“I started it with my soccer team,” George said. “I was like, we all have old cellphones and they’re just sitting around collecting dust, so why not donate them and help people and the cause?”
The cause is getting bigger, and Thomas George is working to spread it through the RU community in hopes of creating a connection between where he was born and where he hopes to leave his legacy as an alumni of RU. Most recently, George was recruited to play soccer for the Ukraine after he graduates and will start his career there in July 2012.