Eric Wowoh is a man with a mission.
The founder and executive director of the nonprofit Change Agent Network aims to break the cycle of poverty and transform in the next decade his native Liberia, Africa.
His humanitarian efforts are noteworthy in and of themselves. But his story, told in his book "Return of a Refugee," makes them almost miraculous.
Wowoh was raised by parents who were animists — a religious belief that all objects, places and creatures possess a spiritual essence. There are no birth records to confirm his age.
“As a child in Liberia, we had a lot of responsibilities — hunting, fishing and farm work,” said Wowoh. “We slept in a 15-by-15 room with a dirt floor, a family of eight with no kitchen or other rooms. You had to be careful how you walked at night."
Sometimes, he said, there was food, sometimes not.
"We had machetes and hoes to help in the fields; bows to catch food on our own," he said.
For some, that may sound like a bleak existence. Not for Wowoh.
"My happiest memory was staying in that home," he recalled. "We were together.”
The family’s existence changed forever in 1989 with the First Liberian Civil War, an internal conflict that killed more than 250,000 people.
“I had no idea about it. We woke one morning, and it was on the news," he said. "Everything was destroyed. No central government, no structure, and there was a curfew. You could not go out. We would not survive like that.”
At 12, Wowoh was the oldest, and his mother told him to go fishing. He was arrested by rebel fighters, who asked him to join other child soldiers. He refused and was beaten and tortured for two days, spared only after the results rendered him temporarily useless.
“I have the scars,” he said.
Set free, Wowoh joined other refugees and walked to the Ivory Coast with no passport, no ID and without knowing the language. For the next dozen years he wandered. He shuffled through different refugee camps in a dozen west African nations, finally landing in Nigeria, where United Nations peacekeepers assessed humanitarian needs and considered some for resettlement.
“I came to know God in the refugee camp,” he said.
Two months later in 2006, Wowoh was headed to the U.S. and assigned a case worker by the Catholic Diocese of Acadiana, who worked with the U.S. government to resettle him.
“When I arrived here, the Catholic Church picked me up and rented my apartment for me,” he said.
Shocked at everything from menus to microwaves, he noticed what Americans took for granted — and what they threw away.
“The spirit of God said ‘You need to gather the leftovers and ship them back to Liberia.’ Couches, televisions, computers — I went on the mission of dumpster diving.”
Now, 13 years later, Wowoh and the Change Agent Network have built 14 schools in six Liberian counties, educating over 3,000 underserved and at-risk children.
The first of these, Heart of Grace school, was completed in 2011 with a total investment of $600,000 and serves as the flagship and national headquarters. It has 450 students and boasts the country’s first string music education program. It also has a safe water system.
To date, Change Agent Network has graduated more than 2,000 students from its academic and professional schools, Wowoh said, and has impacted the lives of 10,000 people in the communities and surrounding areas.
Now he's raising money to ship six school buses to Liberia to transport youngsters in rural areas to school.
Don Mendoza, of Don’s Wholesale in Lafayette, donated the buses and two have already been shipped — at a cost of $7,000 each — with the help of La-Z-Boy, Del Tank Corp. and Ryan Henderson, of Universal Wellhead Services.
School Time has donated boxes of school uniforms, and many other companies in the Acadiana area have offered assistance, Wowoh said.
The Rotary Club of Lafayette-North wrote his first grant, and since then, a hundred people from Lafayette and the South have traveled to Liberia to aid in health care and education.
“The people in America have been so good to me; I want to give back," Wowoh said. "I want to be a faithful servant and steward. There is a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I have to pass on my good fortune to others.
“This is my home when I’m not in Liberia,” said Wowoh, who has a green card and now lives part of the time in Dallas for greater ease with international flights. “Lafayette is the foundation of my life and work.
“Thank you to all Americans, especially Lafayette, for giving me a second chance.”
For information, go to canintl.org or call (214) 890-4062 or (469) 418-5663.