While most teenagers were surfing the web, watching friends and learning to drive, Leo Johnson spent eight years in refugee camps, after fleeing war-torn Liberia in 1998.
He arrived in Canada in 2006. A government-sponsored refugee, he was on his own in an unfamiliar (and very cold) place. “I decided I could either carry on with a victim mentality – or be a champion of possibilities.”
He applied to McMaster University and was accepted. “They gave me a shot,” says Leo, who had completed his high school education in the refugee camps. In his second year, he founded Empowerment Squared, a charitable organization that promotes access to education, life long learning and groundbreaking educational projects in his native Liberia.
He graduated with a degree in political science in 2011, but not before receiving the Albert Lager Prize for Student Initiative and earning a spot as a semi-finalist in CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister Competition. He’s also received the YMCA Peace Medal, Gandhi Peace Award, World Citizenship Award from the City of Hamilton and has been recognized among the top 75 immigrants in Canada – and he’s been named one of the Hamilton Spectator’s Top 40 under 40.
Leo now spends his time between Canada and Liberia, his current project is the Liberian Learning Center, a community hub that will house the country’s first public library since the civil war began in 1989. “It’s been quite a journey.”