In 2007, a teenaged Samuel Johnson and his four siblings were brought to Georgia from a United Nations refugee camp in Guinea where they’d been living in a tent for eight years after fleeing violence in Liberia.
Now, the successor of the agency that resettled Johnson’s family is awarding him with its annual Friend of Freedom award for his own efforts helping other refugees.
Johnson, a Mercer University alumnus, founded My Vision for Refugees. The nonprofit organization helps former refugees, orphans and vulnerable children in Guinea and runs an orphanage there called Home of Hope.
“What he’s doing is what I think a lot of refugee children dream of and very few of them are able to do,” said Nancy Gaddy, chief advancement officer for New American Pathways, the organization honoring Johnson. He will receive the Friend of Freedom award during a live, virtual fundraising event at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 at redwhiteandnew.org.
Atlanta-based New American Pathways supports refugees from arrival to citizenship, hitting four milestones along the way: safety and stability, self-sufficiency, success and, finally, service.
“Samuel represents that fourth and final stage along the pathway way beyond anything that we ever expected,” Gaddy said. “He is that ideal of service on steroids because he’s not just giving back to the community — he’s doing it in a way that’s on a global scale.”
Hungry to learn
By the time Johnson arrived in Clarkston, Georgia, he’d already lost both his parents.
His father was killed in rebel violence shortly before his mother hurried her young children out of Liberia. His mother died just one month before the family was brought to America, according to Johnson’s biography.
He attended two years of high school at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School before earning his diploma in 2009 and enrolling at Mercer.
“That first semester was amazing because he only had barely two years of formal schooling when he entered Mercer,” said Dr. John Dunaway, professor emeritus of French and interdisciplinary studies, who taught Johnson and is now chairman of the Board of Directors for My Vision for Refugees.
“He was very inadequately prepared. He really had no computer skills. His handwriting was illegible. In the camps, he never had schooling.”
Johnson was in Dunaway’s 300-level French literature class. Although English was the official language at his home in Liberia, the people of Guinea spoke French, so Johnson spoke both.
“You talk about students being a sponge. Samuel was the ultimate sponge in his classes,” Dr. Dunaway said. “He just couldn’t get enough learning.”
The student and professor became close. Johnson would go to church with Dr. Dunaway and his wife on Sundays, and sometimes Dr. Dunaway would take him shopping.
“He really won my heart over very quickly,” Dr. Dunaway said. “And I think it’s because he is humble, and he is a willing servant.
“He came to Mercer with one goal in mind. And that was to go back to that part of Guinea where he was in the camps and serve those people and help them have a better life.”
When Johnson first returned to Guinea, he found little had changed. People were sick from the lack of clean water, so he hired a local company to build a well.
Then, with the primary goal of providing education and a safe living situation for the orphaned children of the camp, he founded My Vision for Refugees.
Home of Hope opened in 2015. The orphanage houses 17 children and includes boys’ and girls’ dormitories, kitchen facilities, a fresh water well, a playground and living quarters for a house mother.
Johnson, who is now married with two children, lived at the orphanage until recently, Dr. Dunaway said.
Forgiveness, sharing and serving
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept Johnson in West Africa, he split his time between Atlanta and Guinea.
Good sanitary practices that he taught families during the Ebola crisis now are serving them well as they try to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
“There were gunshots all night long for about a week in N’zerekore where his orphanage is, and the kids were really scared, and he was scared,” he said. “But they endured.”
Johnson draws inspiration from his mother, who taught him the lessons of forgiveness, sharing and serving, Dr. Dunaway said.
“Those have been the principles he’s lived by all his life, and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing,” he said.