Liberian immigrant who fled war seeks to build first school for his village
November 6, 2009
CINCINNATI — Isaac Monah knows how valuable education is and how difficult access to it can be in many parts of the world. That’s why he’s trying to build a school near his home village in Liberia.
There was no school anywhere near the rural village where Monah was born in 1970, so as a young boy he moved to Tolee, a city where his uncle lived, to attend school. “I lived there for two years in an apartment with 12 other people, the young man says.
But then he had to drop out of school and support his extended family by selling a variety of goods on the streets of Tolee. The outbreak of Liberia’s vicious civil war in the 1980s forced Monah to flee to neighboring Ivory Coast, where he got a job tracking monkeys for scientific researchers. “I’m very good in the forest,” Monah says with a grin.
It was there that Monah met and befriended a Presbyterian anthropology student, Scott McGraw, who invited Monah to come to the United States. “He said I was working too hard and should be in school,” Moneh says.
Monah finished high school while living in a refugee camp in Ghana for Liberians displaced by the civil war. In 2002, Scott sponsored Monah’s emigration from Ghana, first to Philadelphia and then to Cleveland, where Monah found a church home at 83-member Noble Road Presbyterian Church. “They were so friendly,” he says. “I was surprised.”
Shortly after his arrival Monah married another Liberian refugee who had come to the U.S. earlier. He also was elected an elder in the church. “When I went on session they asked, ‘Tell us about yourself,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I am a disciple of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for all of us, so I am a part of you.’”
But Monah says he knew he was also still part of the village where he started life in Liberia. And so, with the civil war in his home country now over, he returned in 2007 for his first visit since 1991.
“It was so sad,” he says, tears welling up in his bright eyes. “The illiteracy rate is 75 percent. The unemployment rate is 85 percent. I saw that my people had no future.”
And so Isaac Monah returned to his new home in the U.S. determined to help. Knowing that the key out of poverty is education, Monah determined that he would build a school for his village and those nearby: Dougbe River Presbyterian School of Liberia. The motto of the school is “Zou Mum Jlaou” — “Education Is Light.”
So far Monah’s school has 150 acres of land gived by his and neighboring villages, a board of trustees, complete architectural plans for a 10-building campus, and a long-term business plan for the school’s sustainability.
All that’s lacking is the money to start construction. Phase One — the main classroom building — comes at a cost of $32,000. A few individuals, members of Noble Road Church and a few neighboring churches, and the Presbytery of Western Reserve, through its portion of the PC(USA)’s annual Peacemaking Offering, have contributed $17,000.
“We’re anxious to get the first building up,” says the Rev. Francis Miller, Noble Road’s pastor. “We’ve been at this two years now and we really need to start educating these children. They’re counting on us.”
The cost to complete the entire campus — classroom buildings, two staff and two student dormitories, a cafeteria, an administration building and two years’ salaries — is $300,000.
Monah has no doubt the Dougbe River Presbyterian School of Liberia will become a reality. “I’m not discouraged at all,” the relentlessly optimistic dreamer says. “Time is different in Africa. I just want to help my people. Nobody has heard of me or my place, so I know it will take time to spread the word.”
Miller’s more impatient. “We know the money’s out there for this school,” he says. “We’ve just had trouble finding it so far. I’m amazed at how well thought-out Isaac’s vision is for this ministry. We have no doubt it will come to fruition.”
The two are seizing every opportunity to spread the word about the Dougbe River Presbyterian School of Liberia. Miller was co-keynoter for two weeks of this summer’s Montreat Youth Conferences and repeatedly talked about the school during his talks.
“We partnered with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program in handing out crosses fashioned from spent shell casings left over from Liberia’s civil war, and I know there are kids talking to their parents and churches about the school right now,” he said. “It’s produced a number of helpful connections.”
On Nov. 9, Monah is going back to Liberia, with Miller in tow, to reassure his community there that the school will be built.”I will tell them that I believe in God and I know that everything is possible with God, even if it takes a lot of time,” he says.
“And once the school is built, I’m going to build a church.”
For more information about the Dougbe River Presbyterian School of Liberia, visit the Web site; or contact the Rev. Francis Miller at (216) 382-0660.