Editor’s Note: The story that follows is a first hand account of the recent 14 year civil war in the West African country of Liberia and the Human Rights abuses that resulted from it. At the same time, telling as it does of how one boy, Joseph (Jay) Yarsiah, grew to manhood while trying to survive across the years of the conflict; and how that man came to dedicate his life to the cause of Human Rights in his troubled nation and in Africa, it is a story of hope and redemption. With Liberia’s founding in the 1820’s by freed American Blacks, the country has a history closely linked to that of the United States. The nation’s early founders drew inspiration from the freedom guaranteed by the US Constitution and modeled their own government on its example.  Their capital they called “Monrovia” after US President James Monroe, and their nation’s very name “Liberia” was taken from the word “Liberty.”  How a nation founded on those principles went so awry is something worth knowing and I will be publishing more on Liberia and its history in the near future. Likewise, for Americans in particular, there is much to be gained by understanding the Liberian civil war and the challenges it presented to the cause of Human Rights; a cause that is truly the responsibility of us all. With that in mind, here is “From the Other Side of Freedom: The Remarkable, True Story of Jay Yarsiah.” It is my hope that you will learn from it and become inspired by it, as I am. MA 

Special to “From A Native Son” – by Joseph Yarsiah

Jay Yarsiah today

Jay Yarsiah today

My name is Joseph “Jay” Yarsiah.  I am Liberian, West African, and now 30 years of age.  Three times a refugee from the 14-year civil war in my country, I should probably not be alive, nor most of my family.

My country, Liberia, was founded as a home for freed slaves from the United States in the early 1800s, and in 1847 became the first Black, democratic, independent country in Africa. From its inception Liberia was ruled by these transplanted American Blacks and their descendants (known as Americo Liberians), and in a nation in which the bulk of the population were indigenous natives who were not granted the rights of full citizenship, the seeds of conflict were planted early.

If living to even 18 was once just a silly, seemingly unreachable dream, I never could have imagined my coming to supervise a promising multi-African nation human rights leadership program by 27. Yet, that has come to pass.

Nor, as a fourth grader talking my family’s way around a pitiless 12-year-old rebel general at the Sierra Leone border, did I ever expect to speak to other youth at the United Nations on the vital importance of ending the cycles of violent retribution across the world. Yet, that too has occurred.

Nor, when with my family I was again trying to escape my own country at age 15, huddled and exposed, shoulder-to-shoulder with other refugees in the pouring rain on a sinking, top-heavy freighter in the Atlantic, could I have anticipated that I might someday come to the “promised land,” America, to teach human rights to Pasadena high school kids for whom the killing fields of Liberia and Sierra Leone are nothing but the inspiration for mass violence video games.  Yet, I am now doing just that.

In my country, America spells freedom and opportunity, but just out of reach.  The vast majority of Liberians have little hope of ever traveling to the United States.  Yet, having had the honor of traveling there multiple times over the past several years, including five separate stays in Pasadena, I am concerned with what I see as the resignation of many Americans, particularly the young people, to the fact that their country, easily the light of the world, is stagnant, declining and worse.

I believe my story demonstrates why human rights are vitally important and why, in a country (America) and community (Pasadena), where it is apparently presumed that in the end liberty, freedom and justice will win out, just as Hollywood has portrayed it, people must very definitely wake up to the truth that such a future is only possible through youth equipped as leaders—ready, willing, and effective to make it so.

Peace is not the absence of war.  It is the constant engagement to assure individual rights, mutual respect and social stability by the rule of law.  Yet, there is too often a mind set in the United States that it’s the “other guy” who is going to handle inequities, injustice and social crisis.  After all, Americans have paid taxes to have judges, presidents, governors and mayors, as well as fire, police and emergency medical services, to “handle all that.”  However, whether it’s war-scarred Liberia or relatively ordered America, the “other guy” actually does not exist and no-one but ourselves could ever ensure human, civil and individual rights are to be attained and maintained, as my story demonstrates.

Beginnings, War Comes

In 1980  those earlier mentioned seeds of conflict, originally sown generations earlier, sprouted in the form of a coup d’état against the incumbent government of  President William R. Tolbert Jr. The coup, led by a native, military Master Sergeant named Samuel K. Doe,  resulted in the murder of President Tolbert and many members of his government. Thus ended  133  years of  Americo-Liberian political domination in my country.  A year later, in 1981, I was born.

Map of Liberia

Map of Liberia

Growing up in the early 80s was nice. Peaceful and nice. My father worked for the United Nations and was stationed in Grand Gedeh County most often. We would be excited about weekends as my dad would come himself, or send the driver, at times, to drive us up country. The countryside was lovely and country western music would blast through the car’s speakers as we made our way out of Monrovia, across dirt roads, up the hills, down the valleys, and to the small towns and villages away from the city.  At times we traveled during the rainy season, and the dirt mud roads can be unforgiving to trespassers. The beauty of watching an SUV being pulled out of the mud  still captivates my childhood memories. Despite the setbacks of bad roads and delays, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, and other artists made sure the journeys were memorable.

My mother took care of us. She made everything go well. She is, and always has been, the rock of our family; and a large part of the community would say the same about her as well. She had her own business and worked for the national legislature at the same time.

In 1984 President Doe  had a new constitution approved by referendum and in October of 1985 was re-elected as President as a result of elections widely known to be fraudulent. Up to that point things in Liberia had been pretty stable. As youngsters we attended Cathedral Catholic School. We had a Christmas party every year. I remembered a toy gun, a toy road construction truck, and bicycles for holiday gifts. We had running water and electricity. Our favorite American shows at the time were American Ninja, Delta Force [Chuck Norris], and The Running Man; but the most famous of them all was Eddie Murphy’s ‘Coming to America’.

I was a pretty hopeful and optimistic little kid living with my brothers and parents in the community of New Georgia, just outside of our Liberian capital of Monrovia.   Why not feel that way?  The United States of the 1980s regarded Liberia as its staunchest ally.  While poor and struggling in many ways, my country was the beneficiary of significant American aid at that time. I remember that Monrovia sparkled.  Friends had birthday parties in fancy hotels, office buildings were rising, the streets were paved, and the lights were on.

My father named his children after prominent African and civil rights leaders. My twin brother was named after South African Human Rights Activist Steve Biko. My sister was named after Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie. I was named after Mabuto Sekou of East Africa. During the civil war, we walked for miles and approached a border town in Sierra Leone called Mabo. “Sekou”, my given name at the time, was also associated with the predominant Mandingo Muslims who were being persecuted at the time. I had to change my name at the border point to avoid execution of my family and friends. I picked “Joseph” – a name I remembered from Sunday School. After the war, I elected to keep “Joseph” as a reminder of the war; what it did, who it made you become, and how it redefined the living. I was called Sekou as an official name from birth [1981] until 1989. That young man, with young hopes, dreams, and aspirations never crossed the border. Sekou eventually became the product of war.

Everything changed for me at that border.

Map of Africa showing the location of Liberia

Map of Africa showing the location of Liberia

Escape to Sierra Leone: 

In late 1989 I had just turned eight years old and was looking forward eagerly to another Christmas. Months earlier Liberian fighters led by a man named Charles Taylor had crossed over from the Ivory Coast to challenge the government’s authority.  Stories were that Taylor had the magic; so superhuman he was able to bathe in boiling water; impervious to bullets for having eaten the hearts of his enemies.  Yet, all that seemed far away, “up country,” and not our concern.  Then, one early morning that late December, the pop, whistle and slap of gunfire reached our neighborhood.  It was “Rambo” and the “Terminator” in combination, off the screen and onto the streets.  School was now out of the question.  Sudden, stray, bullet death was a very real possibility.

After weeks in the cross-fire, my father announced we were going to take our chances on the road to Sierra Leone, as we would otherwise simply die one-by-one in our own home.  With what we could grab we crammed into the bed of a pick-up with other families.  We only made it about halfway when the vehicle was confiscated at a rebel checkpoint, leaving us no alternative but to walk the remaining distance. No-one should ever have to endure what we experienced in the next several days.  We walked for over 50 miles to at last make it to the Mano River, the border dividing Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The road had been filled with other dazed families walking in similar or opposite directions with what little food and clothing they could carry on their heads and backs. Vehicles carrying soldiers, mostly kids, would pass to unknown destinations, often spreading sporadic and random gunfire. As each approached, we would flee to the jungle, lay flat and hope for the best. Once we were sure the shooters were gone we would edge back onto the pavement and continue.

We had passed through check points where we lost family members because the rebels judged they were from the same tribe as the ruling government.  People were executed by their nostril size, because they had a certain accent, or, most of all, because some guy with a gun decided who should live and who should not.

Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor

Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor

We had to camp on the Liberian side of the Mano River for a week, with the bridge controlled by a 12 year old rebel commander and his forces.  He earned his rank by being a stone-cold killer, lording over fighters twice his age, and sporting a 27 year-old girl friend.  At the age of eight I begged him for my remaining family’s lives.  Finally, and evidently out of sympathy (guess he wasn’t using drugs that day), he allowed us to cross into Sierra Leone. We lived in Kenema, the eastern region of Sierra Leone, for six months. My twin brother and I attended a Muslim elementary school there, promptly learning the local language (Sierra Leonean Krio) to get along.  When Liberian rebels began to enter parts of Sierra Leone, killing the locals, Liberian refugees immediately became targets of retaliation.  After living in relative peace, overnight Sierra Leonians now considered us spies, bringing war to their country. We again escaped by truck, just as a mob approached around the corner a block away.

We found another region of Sierra Leone to stay for a time, then another.  In 1991, my mother decided to take us back to Liberia as it was better to die at the hands of Liberian rebels than Sierra Leonean locals.  I am not sure how being killed by one crazed group was better than another, but I guess at that time it made sense.  I was not yet ten. 

We Would Rather Die at Home

In 1991 my family returned to Liberia from Sierra Leone. Back in Monrovia, the war had stopped for a few months. People felt it was over.  We returned to school.  Yet, my childhood community of New Georgia had changed from a place where my friends and I played soccer in the open fields to a neighborhood filled with decaying bodies. The air seemed poisonous. The soil was polluted, supporting swarms of red ants feasting on the remains as well as the living.  Their bites would create horrible skin conditions and left scars on our feet for years. Yet, as horrible as all this was, it was at least a peace, and actually a joy, after nearly two years of constant menace and enclosing doom.

Child soldiers of the Liberian Civil War

Child soldiers of the Liberian Civil War

Then, in October 1992, we experienced operation “OCTOPUS,” the name given the effort of Charles Taylor and his rebels to take control of Monrovia and establish full political control over the country. In one of the bloodiest episodes in the long civil war, Taylor’s rebels surrounded Monrovia and attacked simultaneously from eight directions. All exits were blocked, the population trapped against the sea.   The attackers randomly launched RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) into the city and thousands of people were killed.   We gathered with thousands of others around the US Embassy at Mamba Point, near downtown.  Whenever the rockets flew like that, the embassy area was the only physical sanctuary.  After several months Taylor’s forces were pushed back by the West African troops. We returned to New Georgia and again had to start all over with nothing. I was 11 years old.

From late 1992 to 1994  was one of the longest relatively peaceful periods of our protracted civil war, though the term ‘peaceful’ is debatable, as Liberia was being plunged into different government and leadership. With the capital of Monrovia under the control of  West African peace keeping troops at the time, schools and offices were able to reopen. The first year or two provided families some sense of safety and hope. Though government was administered by different  factions in different regions of the country, life was somehow able to begin again.

A peace accord was signed in 1993 in the West African state of Benin. That allowed movement of relief supplies for international displaced persons [IDPs] around the country. Hostility again ensued in 1994, however, that displaced over one million people in need of humanitarian supplies. Soon another peace accord was signed in Ghana, but the conflict had affected food supplies, and things became really tough. Life was really hard and we could hardly find food.

We lived off the bushes and forest, plants and animals. I remembered my parents telling us not to ask what kind of meat was in the food when we received it. We were just grateful we had something to eat.  In 1995  a three-man ruling national council emerged with former warlord Charles Taylor becoming one of its key members. The council was headed by a Liberian professor named Wilton G. S. Sankawulo.

Then on April 6, 1996 there was another major attack.  After three hours of escaping random cross-fire through the bush and surviving yet more checkpoints, we were able to reach the harbor at Freeport. This distance was normally less than a 15 minute drive without traffic.

After my mother somehow managed to pay about $75.00  US for each of us for entry to the port compound, we hoped for space on whatever ship was leaving the country to whatever destination.  Thousands of people were also camped there.  For three nights, it was a ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ nightmare, with people doing everything private in the open.

Second Escape, by Sea

Bulk Challenge was a Nigerian freighter docked at the port. Late on the fourth day, rumors quickly spread that a rebel battalion was on its way.  Practically the whole mass of refugees immediately rushed to board the ship. As the sun quietly set into the Atlantic, many were crushed to death by the crowd or drowned after falling between the lurching vessel and the dock.

A young rebel fighter

A young rebel fighter

I lost touch with my family as the angry-harsh crowd separated us.  I traded the gallon jug of palm oil my mom had given me for two older guys to throw me by my arms and legs from the pier and into the people packed on deck.  As I flew face up, I remember seeing a few stars peeking around dark clouds, and hearing the approaching gun fire.  I closed my eyes as I fell, a cold breeze against my body, my full backpack pulling me down; and all around the noise of people crying for the dead.  I conjured my family and flashed a prayer as my last thoughts if the descent were to take me into the ship’s chains and harbor waters below.

Instead, I landed on heads and outstretched hands.  People passed me overhead to the far side of the deck facing the ocean.  With no family, no funds; just me and a backpack,  I cried for what seemed all night; not knowing if we would ever leave the port or just be slaughtered at the dock to the last person.  I must have finally dozed off, because it was light again; and I somehow found my family, who were also on board. We prayed together for a very long time, resolving never to separate again.  I was 14 years old. 

Some 4,000 people had boarded the Bulk Challenge.  We learned it was taking on water and was not fit to sail; yet the captain decided to take his chances.  We left singing Liberia’s national anthem and other patriotic verses as flames shot high and huge smoke columns rose over the city. The deck was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee.  We were told it was a two day journey down the coast to Ghana. Instead, the journey took nearly two weeks. We were exposed to rain, sun and wind with nowhere to move, mostly women and children.  If you had to go, you went where you sat.   With the engine dying, it was a sinking vessel, at the mercy of the sea; and eventually we had no food or water.  I was among many who could not swim.  Hope was absent.  16 years later, I still cringe on ferries over the open water. 

The ship limped into the port of San Pedro in the Ivory Coast.  The locals provided some supplies, but the captain had to set sail again abruptly as the rumor spread onshore that rebels were onboard. 

After another week or so, and after many attempts, Ghana permitted us to dock in the western harbor of Takoradi.  My brother and I were fortunate to be permitted to attend high school there, but it was often tense and degrading.  The Ghanaians were hardly any more tolerant of Liberians than the Sierra Leoneans or the Ivorians had been.   Patience was unraveling, as since 1990 they had put up over 15,000 refugees at the main Buduburum Camp, just outside Accra; and conflicts, often violent, were common.  (That camp exists even today.) 

Again, Better to Chance Genocide:

Eventually the pressures and humiliations as refugees again became too much, and my parents, again, resolved to take our chances back home.  When we returned to Liberia in 1998, Charles Taylor, the man largely responsible for starting the civil war and the ensuing genocides, was now President.   Liberian humor is frequently cynical.  As Taylor ran for office in the 1997 elections, the popular campaign slogan much of the country was, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I am voting for him.”  He won in a landslide.  The “logic” was that perhaps he’ll stop attacking the population if we gave him the top job. 

For awhile that thinking held. I passed my senior year at Cathedral High School in downtown Monrovia as an uneasy peace prevailed.  All the while, however, word was spreading that Taylor was abusing his office by spawning and supporting the vicious conflict in next door Sierra Leone for a cut of the diamond fields there.  Taylor was also spurning the initiative from the international community to fairly recruit and train a national army made up of Liberia’s diverse tribes. Instead, he was establishing and expanding a personal military dubbed the “ATU” (anti-terrorist unit), quickly sidelining tribal and religious groups he disfavored.  Taylor was said to be running the government’s treasury and major banks from his living room in a nearby suburb.  His irregular journeys from his residence to the presidential offices in town were command performances, the roads cleared at gunpoint, followed by the head-of-state’s speeding convoy of armored Humvees, with fighters laden with bandoleers and manning maximum caliber machine guns through the roofs of the vehicles.

In this climate the marginalized factions collected in the bush and set off another phase of the war in 2000; a rebellion against the former rebel but now brutal dictator, Charles Taylor.  By 2002 over 50% of the countryside was under the rebel control of the “LURD,” (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy).  They opened repeated attacks on Monrovia – the main ones through July 2003 known as World War I, II, and III – demanding Charles Taylor leave office as a condition of cease fire.  In return, Taylor vowed that his ATU would fight street-by-street, house-to-house without mercy.  LURD each time withdrew under UN and US pressure.

Liberian Civil War refugees in 2003

Liberian Civil War refugees in 2003

Refugee to “Human Rights Man”:

In the midst of this, I again ran for my life, this time back to Sierra Leone. Yet, for all the senseless inhuman violence and insane injustices, my life was about to change for the better.  In Freetown, I found volunteer work for the “Foundation for International Dignity” (FIND), a regional, human rights advocacy group setup by renowned Liberian human rights advocate Samuel Kofi Woods II, as well as my dad, James Yarsiah, and others.  FIND advocated for the rights and relief of international refugees and “IDPs” (internationally displaced persons) in the Mano River Union basin (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea).  Kofi, my father and the rest had all been refugees and knew well the daily degradations of those living in the camps. 

As I watched, listened and learned with FIND in Freetown, the U.N.’s Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Taylor for war crimes, forcing him in August, 2003 to resign and retreat into a Nigerian exile.  This opened the way for a U.N. peacekeeping force to occupy Liberia that remains to this day.  (Taylor eventually attempted to escape his virtual house arrest in 2007, leading to his capture and removal to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands for a multi-year trial proceeding that continues to the present.) 

With a U.N.-supported interim government forming in late 2003, FIND opened a Monrovia office.  I returned to further my university studies while working with Kofi and the organization on refugee issues. The funny thing was that after all the indiscriminate and retributive killing, rape, amputations, and other unspeakable tortures, being regarded in post-war Liberia as a “human rights man” was thought of derogatorily by many Liberians; as if really standing for and working for a different future of lasting peace and social justice was a fruitless, vain exercise; and that someone who did that must be an agent of the big-talking but do-little elements of the West.

Yet, after repeatedly living in and barely escaping the madness, there was and is no choice but to try; or at least to die trying.  It was mass ignorance that had transformed my country into wasteland of sickly, competitive and genocidal revenge. Only education would and will deliver a population from being its own worst cannibalistic enemy. 

Youth for Human Rights:

Jay in 2006

Jay in 2006

In mid 2005 I happened on Youth for Human Rights International on the internet (www.youthforhumanrights.org) on a key word search for “human rights education.” It happened that YHRI’s founder, South African educator Mary Shuttleworth was organizing a youth conference on human trafficking in Ghana a few weeks later in July.  I found the money through FIND to fly and take part in the conference.   It was a diverse group, from every region of Africa.  Among the many other earnest participants, there was the youth leader from Uganda who spoke like Martin Luther King Jr.  Later, in 2008, he successfully sought asylum in the United States and he is studying at Harvard now.  There was also Sammy Abbey, a United Nations Volunteer from Ghana, who would go on to work with me for the next five years intensively.  Sammy is now pursuing his graduate education through Georgetown University in Washington D.C. 

The YHRI connection clicked for me. I learned that through well-produced videos and other curriculum geared to young people, YHRI taught young people the 30 articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), encouraging responsibility and leadership to make human rights a fact in their communities.  Youth for Human Rights was, as the Americans like to say, just what the doctor ordered.  Here were tools that could help my generation of Liberians—either teenage killers or the fortunate escapees and survivors of the mass murders—to reverse the descending spiral of violence and create a new future, one actually worth living.

In the midst of that August, 2005 youth conference, I spotted this fairly quiet – but, you could tell, observant – “older guy” participant who turned out to be Pasadena lawyer Tim Bowles.  I described Liberia’s scene to him as the week progressed and invited him to Monrovia. He accepted, first traveling to Liberia in May, 2006.

Jay and Tim Bowles in 2006

Jay and Tim Bowles in 2006

African Human Rights Leadership Campaign:

At that point, Liberia had just had its first non-violent elections in over three decades, with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seated as the first democratically chosen female president in African history.  Yet, despite the glimmer of hope that the election created, Tim arrived in what was essentially a ghost country. The genocides were still a fresh wound, the uneasy peace holding by the presence of 15,000 U.N. troops, monitoring the population by means of air cover, armored personnel carriers and machine-gun manned checkpoints. That the country still had their AKs buried “just in case” was an open secret.  There was no electrical grid, no running water and no operable sewage system in the capital city. 

As Tim, several of my friends and I got around and showed the YHRI videos to high school groups in that first May, 2006 visit, the students expressed appreciation for human rights ideals but complained of their supposed powerlessness.  For all of the high profile infusion of Western humanitarian aid resources that had arrived behind the military presence – convoys of the white NGO vehicles driving here, there and somewhere — the young people were rightly asking when actual progress was going to begin.  More than half the population was illiterate and Liberia’s poverty ranked among the top two or three countries worldwide.  These have been challenges for the 100-plus years of Liberia’s existence, not just post-war phenomena.  Western aid, while sincere, was actually at a scale pitifully inadequate to match the extent of these continuing social ills.

Ultimately, of course, no one is going to “save” Liberia but Liberians.  That’s why Tim and I and our West African colleagues are passionate about what has become what we have named the African Human Rights Leadership Campaign (www.africanleadershipcampaign.org).  It is putting teens and young adults in the position of actually doing something about the injustices around them.  

Jay 5

Jay at work on the African Human Rights Leadership Campaign in 2006

The project places members of diverse tribes and religions, who were killing each other just a few years ago, on teams working to outdo each other for the most effective public awareness campaign on key human rights issues, as determined by each team. In the course of the campaigns the teams conduct events at local schools, present to community groups, write, direct and produce short documentary films; and spread their messages on nationwide radio interviews. 

Each Liberian cycle of competition runs four or five months, with similar competitions ongoing in neighboring Ghana and Sierra Leone.  The culmination of each competition is a presentation event where each team has 30 minutes to present its issue; and through advocacy, skits and its documentary film, to convince judges placed anonymously in the audience that the team’s campaign is the most inspiring, practical and persuasive.  

Issues have included government corruption, youth violence and access to justice; with students now speaking to ministers, the press, and their fellow students on the changes that must come.  No longer do we have young people hanging back and hanging out.  They are engaged and contributing. 

What of Pasadena? 

All my life the United States has been the promised land.  Liberia was founded as a republic in 1847 by returning African Americans who were former slaves from the United States. About half of my country’s presidents have been American-born.  Our government is patterned after the American three-branch, power-balance system.  The flag is patterned after the American, except with 11 stripes and one (uniting) star in the blue field.  Many Liberians have relatives and expatriate friends in America as a result of our civil war.  For all of the connections and shared history, many Liberians have considered their country the 51st state of the United States.

There is a Liberian mythology about the States.  The thought is that America is so rich that the country has air conditioning from the sky. A young, single, Liberian male obtaining a visa for travel to the U.S. has in effect received something far more valuable than gold.

My first trip to the United States was in August, 2006, sponsored by Tim Bowles. Youth for Human Rights honored me for my African human rights work at its annual world youth summit, held that year at the United Nations.  It was a revelation to arrive in New York, the massive airport, bridges, cars, rails, electricity and facilities. 

Jay, Tim and Youth for Human Rights

Jay and Tim: United for Human Rights

As we have succeeded in Africa in moving high schoolers to “sit at the table” of public discourse on human rights issues, Tim and I now work to bring our youth empowerment project to the “developed world” of Pasadena.  Compared to my country, the number of non-profit and community benefit groups active with youth in Pasadena alone is almost staggering.  We have met with leaders and/or conducted presentations steadily for most of the past six months – NAACP Pasadena, El Centro de Accion Sociale, Flintridge Center,  Day One, Pasadena Youth Council, Pasadena NOW, Duarte Teen Center, Armenian American Association, Teen Futures Pasadena, First Tee Pasadena, Outward Bound Pasadena, to name some – and we are still discovering plenty more.

Yet, for its remarkable proliferation of groups, organizations, centers, drives, and initiatives, Pasadena, like many other communities in the United States, in many ways looks to me like a house divided. While institutions, public schools included, are seemingly diverse, I had one community leader complain that the only time the Latino, African American, and Armenian American high school kids get together is to fight.  I had another community figure lament that he had a difficult time working with young people in Pasadena because he thought they had crummy attitudes and bad manners.

In America, as in Liberia, churches have traditionally been the cement between young and old.  However, I don’t see the Pasadena denominations currently collaborating aggressively to create an interfaith initiative to challenge young people to address the illiteracy, drug abuse, gang violence, and other human rights abuses that erode the quality of life in every city neighborhood. 

True, this is one man’s view (mine), but I am concerned that with the relative material comfort of Pasadena comes the attitude that the community can afford to have its diversities exist as its dividing points; and that we can somehow tolerate intolerance. Yet, taken to its extreme, and from my experience, it’s this bystander viewpoint that allows violent civil conflict, even wars, to germinate and spread over an entire population.  

“The youth are our future” may be a tired maxim, but it’s also a true one. The quiet crisis in Pasadena is that, though equipped with relatively plentiful resources, it will probably take a great deal more to motivate its youth to step up and take responsibility for the preservation of their famed freedoms than it has taken to inspire their Liberian or Sierra Leonean counterparts to do something to improve their lot. This is so even when the African young people are supposed to be bitter, not as educated and equipped with virtually nothing.

America, through the Peace Corps, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other private and public outreach, has been coming to aid we Africans for decades.  Perhaps Africa, with its experience that savagery can infect entire countries and cultures when the decent majority of good folk default their common sense in favor of dictatorial force, can teach America a thing or two. Freedom is not conferred.  It is fought for and it is earned … constantly.

I have been blessed to study Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. It has been truly an honor to work under some of the brightest minds in the field, and I have become family with students and faculties along the way.

The aspiration is to stay humble, stay true to my ‘calling’, and contribute the best way I can towards a better future for the next generation, whether in my own country of Liberia, or in communities and nations around the world.

Jay Yarsiah

August 2, 2014
Pasadena, California

You can help Jay in his efforts at restoring awareness and respect of Human Rights in Liberia and Africa with a donation to the African Human Rights Literacy Campaign. Just click the link below:


Copyright © 2015

By Joseph Yarsiah

All Rights Reserved

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19 Responses to From The Other Side of Freedom: The Remarkable, True Story of Jay Yarsiah

  1. Mayango Govego says:

    Wise saying bro! Please keep on going, and may the Almighty God give you the power to reach your goals.

  2. Steve Rodriguez says:

    What an awesome story of courage and triumph of the spirit! Thank you for being their Joseph, for doing what you’re doing and being an inspiration to all of us to get into action and contribute to the cause of human rights and freedom for all.

  3. Yarsiah, Joseph says:

    To Mayango and Steve,

    Thanks Guys! No matter where we come from, who we are or our aspirations, the future can be better if we collectively take responsibility for it. Thanks for your support! Joseph “Jay” Yarsiah

  4. Jamus Bannah says:

    The story is great and motivational. keep making the change, God almighty is on your side.

  5. Trudy Adjei says:

    Remarkable story. It take courage and the grace of God to share this. Thank you for sharing Jay. To the rest of Us who have no idea what War can do to its people and to its nation, let’s learn from this. Protect what you Have for your Children and Unborn Chirldren Never forget who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you’re going. Always remember you hold the Key to your future. Lets help build back Liberia. Lets fix Liberty!!!

  6. Emma. Bedell says:

    Finally!!! You know I’ve been waiting for this. People can finally read about your trials, which become your inspiration and aspiration. From the day I met you and we talked about human rights, I told you that you’re an inspiration. I watched you being so passionate when talking about your experiences and how you hoped to touch more lives, I couldn’t help but smile because I knew you wouldn’t stop until you did 🙂 I have not stopped being impressed since then by how much you’ve accomplished through the years, and continues to. I am PROUD to call you a brother and friend. I pray God contines to guide your path as you continue your journey of changing mindsets and lives. Thanks for all you do.

  7. Vivian N. Innis says:

    It is delightful to see how you and your team has been working Sufficiently to make a change.
    As we all are aware, over 100 countries have a momentous youth bulge including Liberia, in their populations and vulnerability in terms of literacy, employability, skills training, life skills and more is often growing. There is a serious need for activists, managers, planners, policy analysts and researchers alike to help find effective solutions in that direction.
    Thanks for your inspiring narrative Jay it did bring memories of my childhood as well.

  8. Daniel B.Wehyee says:

    Wonderful and remarkable story, Jay. Thanks for what started as community initiative and has now
    gained international impact.

  9. Stephen B. Yarsiah Sr. says:

    As your brother, I have seen first hand your struggles, experienced the relentless sacrifices in the face of all the challenges you have had to go through to make a difference. I salute you.

  10. Gracielia says:

    Intriguing and captivating. This was long coming, and I expected nothing short of it being this inspirational. Bravo Jay!

  11. Sametta Thomas says:

    You are an Amazing person. You’ve been through a lot but yet, have choosen to be Strong and Focus. You could have gone astray and given up, yet,
    You remain True to your aspirations. Regardless of them all, you still SMILE the Brightest. Bravo!!!
    Keep Pressing.

  12. Nancy Arkoe says:

    Well done Jay, I’m very proud of you, I was reading this and just got all these shivers running down my bones, because I can relate to them. You just took me back, and it felt like it was happening again as I read. This was well written again I’m really proud of you. Keep up the good work bro.

  13. Yamah W. Gboluma says:

    I am proud of you boo, the sky is no limit to what you can have. Keep moving forward, pray that God will continue to bless you as you make your dreams a reality .

  14. Sam E. Hare, Jr. says:

    Wow Jay!…This is stunning and a ‘ must read’ for all Liberian youths. I have been knowing you personally and professionally for over 13 years and I have not heard that story. I now understand why you are so passionate aboutvyour with with youths and human rights. You know ‘I got your back!’ Bravo bro!

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thank you Sam! I will relay your message to Jay and I am sure you will hear from him. I am so glad that you are there and that you “have Jay’s back.” My Best To You…Mark

  15. Gordon Turpin says:

    Hi Jay. When I first met you in Liberia I knew you to be special. Now, getting to know you better, I cannot believe you went through all this at such a young age and came out the dynamic leader that you are. Liberia is the better for you, its son. I’m the better for knowing and working with you. The future awaits!!

  16. Joseph Merfee says:

    This is a great story of inspiration to our incoming generation. Thanks bro, for your actions and contribution towards human rights.

  17. Angela Gerdau says:


    The mere fact that you’ve entranced your story with specifics of core reasons behind Liberia formation and its struggles captivate me.

    Starting in an era -the 80s- is relatable and shows the true intent of sharing your story, not trying to rewrite the history of Liberia as common. It is a cheer to identify terminology, “youngsters”, that Liberians can relate to. However sad phrases like “one-by-one”, “Sodom and Gomorrah” revive a picture of memories buried, you have managed to be reminiscent of the “sparkle” of a normal childhood memory (had) to a scarred adult life; thanks.

    Oh the ignorance of “up country” madness. To think I was camp Buduburam. Never had a story told raised such emotions of contradictions -happiness, sadness and anger- however the gaps and inconsistencies in intents of events inspired were.

    Pushing through, working with you…the approach of human rights couldn’t be strategic enough. I mean how couldn’t you!

    Most importantly, pointing out the similarity of “stagnant decline” is a whole other work to be written. There is the exposure. Get on it.

    With our childhood snatched, lets dance in the rain…shall we?

  18. Krista says:

    I don’t think I will ever forget hearing you tell a version of this story for the first time to me– what a treasure to have it in print. I recently read a book about how our deepest pain and suffering can often become our deepest gift and passion. It seems impossible to know why and how you made it through all of that, but it s clear that God has given you a fire in your spirit to not only work for change but to inspire others to do the same. You are one of the most amazing people I know.

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