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“I stepped out there, despite all of the odds that were against me.”

Leo Johnson

Leo Johnson knows how it feels to arrive in a new and very unfamiliar place. At the age of just 15, fleeing war in his native Liberia, Leo found himself in a refugee camp in neighbouring Ivory Coast.

He was alone, without his family.

Leo lived in Ivory Coast for four years, and when fighting erupted there, he moved to another camp in Ghana.

Canada opened its doors to him in 2006. He was 23.

Committed to not becoming a “victim of circumstance,” Leo has since dedicated his life to helping others who have also found themselves in a new place. He is the founder and Executive Director of Empowerment Squared, an organisation that uses education, sport and social skill development to empower refugee and migrant youth.

Leo has also participated in the UN Human Rights Fellowship for People of African Descent, a program for people who are engaged in promoting the rights of people of African descent.

Read his story.

“As a refugee, I never really had a perspective of imagining going anywhere else. There were three realities: you were either going to die in the camp, you were going to take the risk to return to Liberia where a war was still raging, or you were going to jump on a boat and follow strange people who promise that they will take you to a better place.

When the opportunity came for resettlement to Canada by the UN system, I couldn’t believe it. I only participated because it was a coping mechanism, not because I thought something would come of it.

I was 23 when I arrived in Canada.

To be honest, I was extremely overwhelmed.

There are all these expectations placed on you by the immigration system: what you’re supposed to know, what you’re supposed to do.

At one point, I was confused because of my mixed reaction. There were people who were welcoming and nice, but then you start to hear things like “oh people don’t want refugees in their neighbourhoods” or “they bring these refugees here to take our jobs.”

Being by myself was extremely isolating, and I didn't know where to turn. I didn't know where to go.

I remember walking into the apartment I was told would be mine.

I turned on the lights and sat there for five minutes, and just allowed it to soak in. For the first time in my life, I flicked the switch and the light bulb came on. I turned on the faucet and allowed the water to run for about 10 minutes, just to watch a faucet with free flowing and clean water, something I had not seen before.

There has been an abundance of opportunities.

When I got here, I could clearly see them. But I didn't believe that I was going to be able to access them. I just didn't think I could fit within that society, because people assumed that I was a certain way.

Over time, I said to myself, I had two options. I could either choose to be a victim of my circumstances or I could choose to be a champion of possibilities.

I have nothing to lose.

So I stepped out there, despite all of the odds that were against me.

I said, I'm not going to allow myself to not give the best of myself, regardless of how inadequate it may have seemed to anybody. People started to notice, and to navigate towards me. Some people struggled to even believe I was a refugee. I think I just managed to tap into the same resilience that we used to survive in the camp.

Canada is home now.

I can call it home, because even home can be a strange place. And Liberia is home, it always will be, and it can also be strange.

Home is really what you make it. I went to Canada and I was lucky enough to get to a place where I realised that this place needs me more than I need it. I realised that I had something I could offer to the society that people did not recognise or maybe did not acknowledge. I had a responsibility to establish the value of what that was.

Now I feel a responsibility to the thousands of kids who come from many refugee camps around the world.

When I was in the camps, people put their lives on the line for me to survive. The best I can do is to do the same for kids who are facing a whole new set of challenges.

Right now, there's a rising attitude of disenchantment towards refugees and migrants. It’s so easy for people to pick a scapegoat.

But refugees and immigrants actually bring way more value to countries like Canada than anyone can imagine, whether people choose to admit it or not. Canada would be a different place if it wasn't for the many people who've come from all over the world with different skill sets, and different cultures.

The good news is some of us have come to Canada, and we've come with this story. It's part of who we are, and it's not going to change.”.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.