A Guinea orphanage made such a positive impression on Sarah Harris and Carrie Bezanson last summer that they jumped at the chance to return for an internship.
They were among the participants for the 2018 Mercer On Mission (MOM) three-week trip to southern Guinea. The Mercer team worked with Home of Hope, which cares for 14 orphans of the civil wars in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.
“The people I met (in Guinea) were one of my greatest draws to go back,” said Bezanson, a rising senior who is double-majoring in biology and French. “It seems like more of a community-style community, versus in the U.S. where we’re kind of individualistic, maybe to a fault. I just felt that my skillset would be able to bring something to the community that would be valuable.”
The orphanage was founded in fall 2015 by Mercer alumnus Sam Johnson, a 2013 College of Liberal Arts graduate who now splits his time between Atlanta and Guinea, according to the website for his nonprofit My Vision for Refugees.
Johnson and his siblings grew up in war-torn Liberia. Their father was killed in the violence, and their mother passed away eight years later in 2007 while the family was living in a refugee camp in N’Zerekore, Guinea. Soon after, the children were moved to Clarkston, Georgia, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
When Johnson returned to Guinea as an adult, he found that the people were still facing the same hardships. He opened Home of Hope to provide education and safe housing for N’Zerekore orphans.
“The goal of Home of Hope is to focus on these 14 kids and see that exponential growth come,” Bezanson said. “It’s not just keeping these children fed, but they’re a family. It feels like a whole lot more than an orphanage.”
The Mercer team that visited Home of Hope last summer taught French and English to the children, ages 6-15, and did group tutoring with them.
“It’s a very special place,” said Harris, a rising senior majoring in French and international affairs. “You can tell there’s something special about the children. They’re very disciplined and fun to be around. You can tell when they grow up that they will be the leaders of their community.”
Harris and Bezanson were interested in returning to Home of Hope if given the opportunity. Dr. Eimad Houry, professor and chair of Mercer’s Department of International and Global Studies, and Johnson were able to create a three-month internship there for the spring 2019 semester. Houry said he hopes to line up other French language students for the internship in the future.
“It is an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned and to develop new skills as a result of the experience,” Dr. Houry said. “But because we are partnering with an organization founded by a recent Mercer alum who also manages the group, it is an inspiration and an example for Mercer students that shows how much of a difference an individual can make.”
The internship added some components that were different from the Mercer On Mission trip. Harris and Bezanson taught English the whole time, but at three different schools, Harris said. They spent every Monday at a private school; Wednesday at University of N’Zerekore; and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at Home of Hope. They especially loved spending time with the children at the orphanage and became really close with them.
The Mercer students’ teaching styles were very involved and interactive, which the Guinea teachers and students weren’t accustomed to but will be able to apply to their studies in the future, Harris said.
At the private school, Bezanson taught middle school students and Harris taught high school students, and they collaborated with the school’s teachers to plan activities, Harris said. They created lesson plans for all of their classes at the university and orphanage. Bezanson said she had about 50 students in her “American Studies” college class. One of the best aspects of the internship opportunity was being able to teach every age group.
“Overall, my lesson was the power that one person can play in a community,” Harris said.
They supported their students by attending school and community events, such as a regional debate competition. They also visited a refugee camp, an eye-opening experience that shed light on the life struggles that population faces, Harris said. In another area, they conducted interviews with villagers to get their views on polygamy. All of these experiences helped to provide the two Mercer students with a new perspective on the world and a better understanding of the community.
Bezanson said the MOM trip and Guinea internship helped reaffirm her desire to do international aid work. She is particularly interested in working in French-speaking countries in West Africa in the future.
“It solidified my direction of what I want to do going forward,” she said. “Also, we were put in a variety of challenging situations each week, so I feel like it’s helped me a lot with confidence. Being able to work collaboratively on stuff that I’ve never worked on before, being able to be in situations that I’ve never even thought I would be in … I feel more directed.”