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 CURE Canada (now Empowerment Squared), a charitable organization that promotes academic mentoring, access to sports and recreation, 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 and theWorld Citizenship Award from the City of Hamilton – 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.”