I Never Thought I Would Be a Refugee: LIRS Academy Graduate Shares Her Courageous Journey

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Faith Cooper with youngest students at Sis Iye Orphanage in Monrovia.
Faith Cooper with the youngest students at Sis Iye Orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia.

Today, I’d like to share the continued conversation with Faith Akovi Cooper, LIRS Academy graduate and former refugee from Liberia. Last week, Faith described how being a refugee shaped her career, and how, ironically, she has helped strengthen Liberia’s disaster management system, the same country she once fled. Today, Faith describes what it was like to flee for her life as a child: walking on foot day after day without food, witnessing brutality, and not knowing if her parents were dead or alive. Faith’s experience impressed upon her the importance human life, and how it is so often undervalued.

This interview was conducted by Juliet Sohns, LIRS Outreach Intern.

Juliet Sohns (JS): How can we as members of society take ownership and fulfill our moral responsibility to protect the innocent and alleviate suffering in the United States and around the world?

Faith Akovi Cooper (FC): I truly believe that every individual has a moral responsibility to protect vulnerable populations, especially children. Growing up as a child in Liberia, I never once imagined I would become a refugee, live in a refugee camp for years and be resettled in a foreign country. My personal experience surviving the Liberian war has made me what I am today!  Similar to many other survivors around the world, I use my experience to guide my life’s direction.  I crossed over from Liberia to neighboring Ivory Coast on foot, walking for many days, daylight and nightfall, stopping for only brief moments to rest, and back on our feet again. We lost count after the third day of walking with no food, at times drinking dirty creek water, crying from severe leg pain as a result of walking.  I witnessed brutal rape, beheadings and unimaginable human suffering, something that no child should ever experience.  We were separated from our parents during the escape and would leave Liberia without knowing if they were dead or alive.

My personal experience has shaped everything I do in life. Apart from my professional work in global health, I am also living my passion of working with refugees around the world. I volunteer at refugee camps and orphanages in Africa, teaching youth about the importance of education and how to prevent against HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and other sexual/reproductive health challenges that are highly prevalent in refugee camps.  I’ve been successful in using my network in the United States to raise awareness about these issues and to collect school supplies camps and orphanages.  People genuinely want to help and some just don’t know how to.

We as members of society must make it our moral duty to educate one another about the value of human life. Whether it is in the United States or other part of the world, I don’t think we place enough value on human life. As a mother of two little girls, five years and 19 months old, I’ve made a vow to teach them about the importance of respect for people and overall human life. One of my favorite quotes is “teach one reach one.” If I can teach just one person about the importance of alleviating human suffering, they will impart the knowledge to another and another and ultimately, the world.  I strongly believe in changing the world one person at a time.

JS: What advice do you give refugees who have recently resettled in the United States?

FC: Simply put, pay it forward.  Every year, thousands of refugees resettle in the United States from around the world.  Imagine, there were 40,000 plus refugees at the Liberian refugee camp, Buduburam in the early 90s, and my family was one of the few thousands resettled to the United States, because of groups such as LIRS advocated for refugee opportunities.  Most refugees come to this country with the goal of one day returning home!  I did the same and so will many others.  Most importantly, we come to escape human atrocities and to take advantage of opportunities to better ourselves. However, let’s not forget that to “whom much is given, much is expected.” Paying it forward means reaching back to lift those who cannot lift themselves. 

JS: How did participating in the World Refugee Day Academy help you pursue your passions?

FC: World Refugee Day Academy was truly a dynamic experience.  My experience at the Academy made me reflect on the importance of helping other refugees adjust in the United States.  I met and interacted with people from all walks of life and have made lifelong friends. My passion is the community! The Academy reignited that passion, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity!

JS: What are the specific challenges that you see your refugee community in Virginia struggle with?

FC: I am a mentor to many young people, several are children born to refugee parents in the United States and others are survivors of war who have resettled in the United States.  While I am not necessarily linked to any particular refugee group, I’ve made it my life’s work to mentor. I am where I am today because others sacrificed, mentored, and guided me along the way.  One of the major challenges I’ve observed through my mentoring work is the lack of mentors for refugee children.  I would encourage LIRS to advocate for the involvement of more former refugees to serve as mentors for immigrant children.

Photo credit: Faith Cooper

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