"There were mornings that I used to wake up from my small refugee "cottage" and hear the melodious voices of children sing an anthem that was clearly not theirs. Laying there, it would occur to me each time that the song did not truly represent them. The song that they sang then was the national anthem of Ghana."
So writes William Jacobs, Executive Director of the Liberian Dance Troupe, recalling the beginning of the Troupe in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana.
"The children's parents had come to the camp as refugees, victims of a horrendous civil war which had forced them out of their homeland, Liberia. Most came as single parents, mainly mothers, with very young children. Others gave birth in the camp but their babies were unrecognized as citizens of Ghana. Together they were suffering a profound detachment from families and friends, and loss of culture as a result of a prolonged civil war."
The Liberian civil war was long and brutal. The 14 years were characterized by the extensive use of child combatants, and of mutilation and sexual violence being used as weapons of war against the civilian population. Tens of thousands fled the country to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
The Liberian Dance Troupe started in the Buduburam camp in 1992. In 2001, it received its first support from War Child Canada to start a Trauma Recovery and Cultural Awareness program. The aim was to reconnect the refugee children to their Liberian cultural heritage. Like many grass root organizations, they initially faced enormous challenges born of mistrust and suspicion of traditional culture from the largely Christian community.
But, as William explains, the dance troupe would not give up.
"To get the project going, our strategy was simple. We organized ourselves by bringing together all the best and most committed members of the troupe. We wrote fifty letters that we hand-delivered to the schools in the camp. Then we engaged the parents going from house to house explaining to them why it was important that their children participate in the trauma recovery program. We were relentless and determined to succeed. Five of the primary schools agreed to give us a chance. Once we got the acceptance letters from the schools and the parents consented, we immediately made the "Liberia National Anthem" and the "National Pledge" our mission alongside traditional dances, drumming and teaching of some traditional Liberian names and their meanings.
"With help from War Child, we finished building the Liberian Dance Troupe Culture Center in 2005. Now in our own hall, we intensified our awareness campaigns opening the doors to the entire community of about 18,000 children and adults to come and learn free of charge, all about Liberia. In the years that followed we introduced several components to the program like peace education, health and sanitation, scholarship and computer studies. These attracted many children and youth to the center making the Liberian Dance Troupe a unique community-based organization in the camp. The results were profound and made a huge impact on the residents of Budumburam. The entire community contributed to the project's success."
The war in Liberia ended in 2003 and in the intervening years stability has returned to the country. Refugees - including William - are finally returning. Thanks to the extraordinary work of the dance troupe, the children of Buduburam are not arriving in a strange land but one they have close cultural ties with. It is a place they can comfortably call home.
Now based in the capital Monrovia, William is determined to continue the work of the troupe in Liberia.
"The scars of war are evident in most people. The government is striving to mend the broken pieces, but this is a huge national challenge.
"The children and youth that we worked with in Ghana are now returning with little chance of an education or training. I am determined to continue our programming in Liberia. Without such support, the likelihood of some of the children ending up on the streets, or even falling victim to drug addiction and teenage pregnancy, is high. This is why it is so important that the project be established in Liberia."
War Child and members of Liberian Dance Troupe are currently assessing the needs of Liberia's returning children and their families.