Togar Tarpeh had hardly started school when, in 1989, the civil war in Liberia reached the capital, Monrovia. His family fled the city before he’d finished second grade, and they didn’t know when they’d return.
Because Liberia’s educational system fell apart during the war, Tarpeh spent the rest of what should have been his elementary years working in cassava fields and rice patties in Bong County, his father’s original home. In 1994, the family was finally able to return to Monrovia, and the following year, Tarpeh re-enrolled in school as a 15-year-old third-grader.
Between fourth grade and the end of high school, Tarpeh attended a new school that opened at his family’s church. He was the oldest student in his class, and there were still plenty of obstacles ahead of him. In 1996, his father died, and in 1998, his mother and niece left Liberia for good, eventually settling in the United States with an older sister who’d moved there previously.
After his mother left, Tarpeh lived by himself. He was 18, he was in sixth grade, and, had it not been for a family in Texas that began sponsoring him, he would have had to quit school then and there. And while many of his peers took their lives in less constructive directions, Tarpeh concentrated on his studies with unusual self-discipline for a teenager living on his own.
“My parents brought me up in a way that I was already conscious about what was right and wrong at that time,” said Tarpeh, adding that his church and Christian school also strong influenced the decisions he made. “I knew that I could only succeed if I focused on my education.… Once you’re educated, things can change for you.”
Two years after Liberia’s war ended in 2003, Tarpeh finished high school and was eager to continue his education. The family in Texas agreed to continue their support, and that fall, he returned to Bong County to begin classes at Cuttington University. He graduated magna cum laude in 2009 with a major in sociology, a minor in public administration, and an advanced certificate in peace and conflict resolution.
After college, Tarpeh received additional training and practical experience in peacebuilding work during a one-year term with the Liberia Volunteers for Peace Program. In that role, he taught conflict resolution skills to young people, organized and led various youth volunteer efforts, and worked with local government in Bomi County on an analysis of conflict issues in that area.
Tarpeh now works on a conflict early warning and response project with the Liberia Peacebuilding Office. He began working there in 2010, after earning a competitive spot in the President’s Young Professionals Program, a national effort to train upcoming Liberian leaders from the ranks of young people whose lives were severely disrupted by more than a decade of war. At the encouragement of his colleagues Nathaniel Walker, a 2010 master’s degree graduate of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and Wilfred Gray-Johnson, a former Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) participant, Tarpeh arrived in Harrisonburg this summer to attend SPI.
“There are new skills I’ve learned here that I’ll be able to use back home,” said Tarpeh, who is now looking for funding to pursue a master’s degree in conflict transformation at EMU.
His first trip to the United States also gave Tarpeh an opportunity to see his mother for the first time since she left Liberia 14 years earlier. Over Memorial Day weekend, he flew to Minneapolis, where the two reunited for several days before he returned for the remainder of his SPI session.
“We pray and hope we’ll meet again,” he said.
Togar Tarpeh invites inquiries about his situation at firstname.lastname@example.org.