Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013 09:10
After spending close to 12 years of his life living in poverty in refugee camps in Africa, University of Rhode Island Class of 2013 Graduate Komlan Soe is working to redefine the continent that shaped who he is today and the way people view it.
Soe, who graduated with degrees in political science and sociology, spent from May to August 2013 working to promote economic independence for women in Uganda with the Uganda-based nonprofit Community Transforming Network. The trip cost Soe only the price of a plane ticket and the organization covered his living expenses while he was in Africa.
“I feel like Africa needs me,” Soe said. “The story of Africa needs to be told in a different way with a different perspective. I understand the need of the continent, the need of the people.”
While in Uganda, Soe traveled to rural villages to help women improve the businesses that the nonprofit had established for them in previous years. Soe helped the women balance checkbooks, reinvest profit and cut waste in their businesses.
“I tried to make people do things for themselves,” Soe said. “The reason why I got so involved with them was because I was able to do things with them, not for them.”
With a per capita income of less than $170 in United States currency, according to The World Bank, Uganda ranks one of the poorest countries in the world. Soe believes that it’s crucial for Africa’s rebuilding as an economically competitive nation for women to be able to provide for themselves.
“By empowering women, by giving them the opportunity to be independent economically, [it] also…helps the kids who need that education,” Soe said. “[It’s about] how we can work with these people and not just seeing them as people who need a handout to get by.”
Civil war in Western Africa and political conflict in Liberia in the 1990s tore the western part of the continent apart and forced many families, including Soe, his parents and his nine siblings into refugee camps.
Though the western half of the continent became more stable and organized fighting died down after Liberian rebel groups signed a peace treaty in 2003, many African families were left in poverty. In addition, brutal fighting, both organized and borderline genocidal, left many women as the heads of their households.
“Women are the backbone of every child’s success in Africa, and in the world in general, because the mother will give everything she has to educate her child,” Soe said. “When she becomes successful and is getting into business and whatever she can do, the child’s future is set.”
Soe’s connection to his work is an extremely personal one. When civil war broke out in Soe’s birthplace of Liberia, Soe was forced to move at the age of three with his family to a refugee camp on the Ivory Coast. He spent the next decade of his life living in tents and shacks with limited food and water supplies and essentially no sanitation. Schools were not available to the children in the camp.
“When I was in the refugee camps without a bed, without food, in that extreme condition, I feel like I need to give back to people who are in the same situation I was as a child,” Soe said. “It was a horrible experience that I really don’t want any child to go through. But it made me strong. It made me work harder and harder to make my dream a reality.”
In 2002 when civil war spread to the Ivory Coast, Soe relocated to a refugee camp in Ghana where a United Nations worker noticed him reading anything he could find at the U.N. office and began bringing him books. According to a press release, the worker encouraged Soe to take an entrance exam at a prestigious boarding school near Ghana’s capital and Soe won a four-year scholarship to the school for receiving the highest score out of the 50 applicants.
“Transitioning from sitting under a tree to sitting at a comfortable desk was hard for me,” Soe said in a press release. “I was a boy who wrote on pieces of wood and now I’m sitting in a class with rich kids wearing a uniform.
Soe left Africa after graduating from high school in 2005 and moved to Providence, R.I. to live with his father, who, seeking political asylum, relocated to Rhode Island in 1999. After two years at CCRI, Soe transferred to the University of Rhode Island. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college.
“With my whole experience, what I went through in Africa, I saw that Africa needs me,” Soe said. “I want to bring a very different image, a very different perspective, to the world about Africa. It’s an image based on partnership and collaboration on solving global problems.”
In the next two to three years, Soe hopes to work with the Community Transforming Network again to instate a program in Liberia like the one he worked with in Uganda.
“We need such a program to improve the lives of women and eventually their children,” Soe said. “There are a lot of kids in Liberia who are not in school and their country is rebuilding and it needs some ideas to improve the lives of the people there.”
Ultimately, Soe hopes to gain support from his alma mater, URI, in his attempts to help Liberia rebuild.