Liberian School in Distress
Ben Koconis | 12/1/2009, 6:54 p.m.
Artwork called, Symbols of Peace, made from bullet casings found on the streets of Liberia, represent one way The Center for Peace Education raises money to alleviate ongoing turmoil in the war-torn nation. Photo by Yoko Shimada
Ebenezer Mainlehwon Vonhm Benda, a refugee who fled Liberia at the height of the civil war, has been working with children in Liberian schools since early 2009 to promote conflict resolution and encourage unity in this war torn nation.
In October, the Liberian national hosted several fundraisers in the Washington metropolitan area, to promote the Center for Peace Education, a nonprofit that he established to teach peace education throughout the Liberian school system.
€The war in Liberia is not necessarily over,€ Benda, 39, said.€We are trying to teach people how to move on. Both victims and rebels are in the same classrooms. There are women who have been raped; some students are high on drugs. Teachers do not have time to teach because of conflicts that are still occurring,€ he said.
Benda said that he was able to make his way to the United States from a West African refugee camp, with the help of some American educators, in the hope of pursuing a better education. Benda said that he earned his Bachelor of Arts in international affairs from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., and in August of 2004, he received his Master€s degree in International Peace and Conflict
Resolution from American University in Northwest. Upon graduation, he worked as a coordinator for the Africa Project at the Center for Global Peace at the most politically active university in the nation. Between 2005 and 2007 he worked for the World Bank in Liberia on various community development projects and earlier this year he developed the Center for Peace Education.
Benda said that the Center for Peace Education is helping many of the children assimilate into schools throughout Liberia, including an eight -year-old- ex -soldier named Matthew.
€After the war both Matthew€s mother and father died. His only family member was his grandmother who had no income. The Center for Peace Education took him in and mentored him for three months, teaching him math and linguistics. He is in school for the first time and is now in the third grade.€
Peace education is taught through a series of steps that require students to sign personal contracts pledging to live peacefully and to be tolerant of others, Benda said.
€We need to be example of our principals and values. We try to teach our students how to deal with anger and to cultivate interpersonal peace.€
About 30 people showed up Thu., Oct. 29 at the Big Bear Caf in Northwest to learn more about the conflict in Liberia and to pledge their support to Benda€s Liberian-based organization. Emily Stoddart, a 27-year-old who lives in Northwest, attended the fundraiser to learn more about the West Coast of Africa.
€I don€t know the specifics of what is happening in Liberia, but I knew conflict was going on. I€m not sure if the conflict is ongoing or is over, so I want to learn more about it,€ she said.
One of the ways that the Center for Peace Education generates income is by selling artwork that children design with the help of a blacksmith in Liberia. The artwork called €Symbols of Peace€ is crafted from bullet casings left over from the war.
Children come up with various designs that include crosses, roosters, and angels. The sketches are then taken to a blacksmith who forges the bullet casings into the children€s designs, Benda said.
Raising money for the nonprofit has not been easy. Benda said that he has been in contact with the United Nations and President Barak Obama, but much of the funding for the Center of Peace Education has come directly from his personal bank account.
Yoko Shimada, 33, also attended the fundraiser at the Big Bear Caf. She was amazed by the designs and the craftsmanship.
€These were bullets found on the streets of Liberia -- they are symbols of peace made from symbols of war. I think they are very cool because they are real evidence of what really happened in Liberia,€ she said.
For more information about the Center for Peace Education, visit www.peaceedu.org.