Liberian refugee Eric Willise Wowoh walked into Lafayette attorney Ed Abell Jr.’s office in 2007 and said he wanted to change the world.
“I said OK,” Abell recalled. “He didn’t even have his green card.”
Wowoh, who arrived in Lafayette in 2006 through a program administered by the Diocese of Lafayette, had picked Abell’s name and phone number out of the Yellow Pages. What Wowoh wanted was to set up in the U.S. the same nonprofit relief agency he’d started in Africa a few years earlier called Change Agent Network Inc.
Abell, taken by Wowoh’s aggressive, humble and sincere blend, didn’t charge his usual fee in setting up the legal framework of CAN. Abell also paid the state incorporation fees for Wowoh.
It wasn’t the last time Wowoh, who was broke then and leads a poor man’s life now, would get what he asked for from Lafayette residents and others who want to help feed the poor and educate the uneducated half a world away.
“From what he was to what he’s done, it’s absolutely mind-boggling,” Abell said.
In the seven years since that initial meeting, CAN has built 14 schools in Liberia and started construction of a university, and several times a year ships old computer parts, copiers, desks and other goods that America regards as detritus.
“Yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure for us,” Wowoh said last week, standing inside a church building in Carencro where piles of old computer and office furniture parts await the next shipment to Africa’s west coast.
Last year, as the deadly Ebola virus that originated in Liberia killed thousands in west Africa, CAN switched gears and sent medical supplies, food and other goods.
The efforts of CAN and Wowoh’s part in the humanitarian cause caught the attention of Liberia’s ambassador to the U.S., Jeremiah C. Sulunteh. Sulunteh visited Lafayette in February and attended a CAN fundraiser at the Cajundome Convention Center along with more than 400 others.
Trinity Baptist Church Pastor Dennis Malcolm, who attended the fundraiser, said the event raised $1.7 million and that Wowoh was the central figure.
“God seems to have a hand of blessing in favor of this guy that is pretty difficult for me to really comprehend,” said Malcolm, who with others in the Trinity congregation has visited Liberia on missions with Wowoh.
Life in Liberia is hard when times are good. The developing nation, settled by freed American slaves in the 1840s, doesn’t provide even the basic needs for many of its people. Wowoh chose the birthdate of Aug. 22, 1974, because official birth records were not kept.
Wowoh grew from child to teenager to adult during the years guerilla leader Charles Taylor, who later became president, waged war in the country. The first civil war started Christmas Eve 1989 and lasted six years. At the time, Wowoh, the eldest of seven siblings, helped his father and mother put food on the table. Wowoh was in his early teens when one day, on his way back from catching fish, he was set upon by one of the many factions of guerilla fighters, child soldiers wielding machine guns and adult men who led them.
“There was no government in charge. The man with the gun was in charge,” Wowoh said. “Each of these factions was killing people.”
Thrown chest-first to the ground, his elbows were bound behind his back — the wrapped imprint of the rope still shows on his arms — and the blood circulation to his hands was cut off, Wowoh said.
Wowoh said he was taken prisoner and tortured — the scars remain on his back, his broken teeth repaired with caps and dentures — then released when his captors reasoned that the loss of circulation from binding his arms had rendered them useless and that he would be no good to them as a child fighter. (His arms eventually regained feeling.)
Freed, Wowoh set off on foot with others and tried to get away from the civil war, which was spilling across borders into Sierra Leone to the west and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to the east. “We, as young people, were the targets.”
Hundreds of miles and years later, the Red Cross took Wowoh to the Oru Refugee Camp in Ogun State in southwest Nigeria.
During his 10-year stay at Oru, he slept on the ground but ate regularly. And he became a Christian. One day he got a hold of a used computer, which another refugee taught him to use. Wowoh then began to teach others.
In 2005, U.S. officials heard Wowoh’s account of how he was captured, and together with the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, in 2006 brought him to south Louisiana.
Life in America
By the time he moved to Lafayette in 2006, Wowoh was married and had a baby daughter. Wowoh’s wife embraced her new American life. But he found assimilating difficult. Life could have been easy for him in the states: Get a job, buy things for his family, save his money, buy a house, plan for retirement, live his golden years in comfort.
But he never stopped thinking about the Liberian people and the many things they need, and often traveled there to stay for months at a time.
The differences in where they were headed broke up the marriage. She remarried; their child is now 10 and living with her mom and stepfather in Lafayette.
“I was headed this way, and she wanted to stay here and be part of the American dream,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the American dream.”
“All I want is the baseline: food, water,” and the discarded computer parts and other goods that are thrown in the trash here but needed over there, he said. “I am a Liberian living in America. I will stay here and beg for yesterday’s trash.”
Wowoh draws a salary of $1,000 a month from CAN, the nonprofit. When he’s in Lafayette, he sleeps in the homes of CAN board members or other friends and drives a 2004 Honda Accord that someone gave him.
In a couple of months, he’ll return to Liberia with a batch of computer parts, office furniture and other goods. While he’s there, he’ll also check on CAN University that is under construction and needs more money for completion.
Money continues to be raised through CAN and through fundraising efforts by Wowoh and others who have taken up his cause.
Maureen Brennan, a Lafayette psychologist who runs Cité des Arts, met Wowoh when he wandered into Cité looking for spare computer parts to send to Liberia.
“Eric told us his story, and we’ve been hooked in with him ever since,” Brennan said.
She invited Wowoh to speak to a group she was affiliated with, the Rotary Club of Lafayette North, and he walked out of the meeting with $7,000 to spend on the poor in Liberia.
“If anything’s going to change in his country, it’ll be through education,” Brennan said. “All he wants to do is change the world.”