Much like fellow students at Clark University in Worcester, MA, Jenkins Macedo (pictured right) spends most of his time attending class, completing research projects, and studying. But what makes the 24-year-old graduate student stand apart from most of his classmates is his past: He spent 14 years living as a refugee in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Ghana.
That’s why instead of going to parties and other social events, like many college and graduate students do in their free time, Macedo dedicates his spare hours to working with local youth, volunteering, giving lectures on the importance of diversity, blogging about social and economic change, and otherwise doing his part to make this world a better place. He is especially passionate about protecting the rights of refugees, a cause that’s very near and dear to his heart.
“As a refugee myself, I have decided to devote my life to creating awareness about refugee issues and creating change in the process,” he said. He is collecting educational materials to send to African countries affected by war. His goal is to open community resource centers in Liberia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, which would give local residents, schools, and community workers access to textbooks, computers, Internet, printers, scanners, and fax machines. He believes that making education accessible to refugees would drastically improve their quality of life and prospects for the future.
Macedo attributes his passion for education to his mother, who single-handedly raised her five children. “My mother didn’t complete middle school” he said. “But she fought hard to make sure that all her children got the education she didn’t receive.” Childhood interrupted by war
Growing up in Zwedru, a town in Grand Gedeh County in southeast Liberia, Macedo and his siblings attended a local Catholic school. His favorite after-school activity—apart from soccer!—was helping tend the gardens in the back of the guest house for the European Economic Community in Zwedru, where his mother worked as a manager. He didn’t know it at the time, but his love of gardening would help him survive during one of the toughest periods of his life.
When not gardening, Macedo could be found fishing or playing soccer. He remembers his friends and family always sharing meals, eating with their hands from a large, communal dish. “It’s not that we didn’t have spoons or forks to eat with,” he explained. “But we felt connected to nature when we ate with our hands.”
On Dec. 22, 1989, when Macedo was five, he went with two of his older siblings to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with their oldest sister, who lived there. Their mother stayed in Zwedru with her youngest child. Two days later, the Liberian civil war started, separating the mother and her children for the next 14 years.
Monrovia became a ghost town, its streets and drainage system a burial ground for fallen soldiers, rebel fighters, and innocent civilians. Stray dogs roamed the abandoned alleys, feeding on corpses. “You could not even hear birds chirping,” remembered Macedo. “Only the noise of flies on dead bodies and the sounds of rifles.”
Macedo and his sibling sought refuge in downtown Monrovia at the Olympic Hotel. The capital’s leading hotel became a shelter for thousands of displaced people. They stayed there for nine months, not knowing whether they would survive from one day to the next. Fearing for their lives in the rebel-occupied city, the siblings were eventually forced to flee the capital.
When they arrived at the St. Paul Bridge checkpoint, they were instructed to join a single-file line of men, women, and children. The line seemed to go on for miles. Macedo remembers seeing elderly people pushed in wheelbarrows because they were too weak to walk and hearing babies cry. Each person going through the checkpoint had to state his or her ethnicity. Innocent people who belonged to certain ethnic groups, including Krahn and Mandingo, were taken out of the line. Some were killed with machetes, others shot to death or tied and thrown into the St. Paul River. Piles of human bodies were visible behind a building just a few feet away from the checkpoint. Macedo recalled, “I can still remember my sister placing her hand over my eyes to prevent me from seeing the horrifying scene.”
He and his siblings, despite belonging to a tribe targeted by the rebels, were lucky enough to make it through the checkpoint alive by lying about their ethnicity. From there they walked another three weeks to Bomi Hills, where they stayed for about a month before continuing across the border to Sierra Leone. Growing up in refugee camps
For the first three years after leaving Liberia, Macedo and his siblings stayed in refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. They were separated in 1995 during an attack on thousands of Liberian refugees living in Ivory Coast. Macedo fled to Ghana, where he remained for the next 11 years at the Buduburam refugee camp.
Life at the refugee camp in Ghana was very difficult, to say the least. “You have to have a strong heart to live and survive at a refugee camp,” he said. “You are discriminated against by the host country.”
Macedo remembers going to bed hungry almost every night. “Sleep was the only way to stop worrying about hunger and thirst,” he said. But thanks to his love of gardening as a child, he was able to start growing vegetables. He survived off the fruits of his labor and even sold some. He used the money to pay for school fees required to attend the Buduburam Refugees Community Schools. Mother and son reunite
After more than a decade of struggling to survive in the refugee camp, Macedo came to the United States through the U.S. Refugees Resettlement program. He learned that his mother was alive and well and living in the United States. The two were reunited in Worcester, MA, after being separated for 14 years. His siblings still live in Ghana, Benin, and Niger.
One of the most difficult aspects of acclimating to life in the United States for Macedo was getting used to the brutal east-coast winters. Mastering the American accent was a close second. “At first, a lot of Americans found it difficult to understand me when I speak, because of my accent,” he said. “While I may never be able to speak like a typical American, I’m doing my best trying.”
His favorite things about the United States? “Having a warm place to sleep,” he said, adding “and endless educational opportunities.” Macedo earned his bachelor’s degree in 2010 from Worcester State College, where he received a community engagement award for volunteering with the African Community Education program as a mentor and math instructor. He is currently pursuing a master’s in international development and social change. His academic research focuses on refugee issues, such as local integration, anti-warehousing, and sustainable development.
He said of his dedication to education: “I want to make my mother proud!”Giving back
Throughout his life as a refugee in West Africa, Macedo helped other refugee youth gain self-confidence through skills training and education. As a volunteer for an organization that focuses of refugee education, he helped spread awareness of refugee issues among local and international students by sharing his personal experiences as a refugee. He also established a non-profit organization in Liberia called Sustainable Agricultural Program for Liberia (SAP-Liberia), an endeavor inspired by the vegetable garden he started as a refugee in Ghana.
“I understand that refugees are humans and humans have rights,” he said. “Therefore, refugees should not be denied their rights. They need the support of everyone to make their lives worth living.” Photos from top to bottom: Macedo giving a lecture at Worcester State College about his experience as a refugee; Liberian refugees at Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana (source: RESPECT Ghana); Macedo working on his agriculture project in Ghana; on campus at Worcester State College; working with Liberian refugee youth in Ghana (source: RESPECT Ghana).