Salesian Brother Lothar Wagner has been in Liberia for about a year. In the West African country, Bro. Wagner takes care of children and older youth who are socially marginalized, such as the homeless “cemetery children” in Monrovia. These children are called that because they sleep in tombs in the cemetery as they have no other alternative place to sleep.
“The young people suffer the most from the consequences of a decades-long rebel war and the Ebola crisis,” says Bro. Wagner. “The educational system is rated one of the worst in the world. The police and judiciary are corrupt. The health care system has broken down. According to a new study more than half of the population is directly affected by famine.”
“Ultimately it is fatal that the state crisis has reached the families and thus also the children,” adds Bro. Wagner. “Despite hard work, the daily salary does not suffice to feed the family. Frustration and the resulting aggressions of the leaders in the family are transferred to the children. Families are torn apart; whole rows of children end up on the streets. In the last couple of months, I have met numerous children who consume drugs to escape their everyday life. That is simply terrifying.”
Bro Wagner explains that youth need role models and people who will show them a hopeful perspective in life. He notes that youth also need considerable attention because without it, youth can easily end up in a vicious circle of drug addiction, prostitution, crime, and sickness and despair.
When asked what it is children need most, Bro. Wagner outlined several things including more professional and motivated people on the ground to help them. He noted that professional training in Liberia is needed, as well as the physical space and supplies to properly shelter, feed and educate children in need.
“In order to help children the most, we go through thick and thin with them, day and night,” explains Bro. Wagner. “We must take them from the street and bring them back to their families, take them from prison back to school, from drug addiction to a meaningful life. They need intact families, good education and a viable professional training.”
Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world with 64 percent of its population of 3.5 million people living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. The 2015 Human Development Index ranks Liberia 177 out of 188 countries in the world. Still recovering from the effects of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, Liberians struggle with social and economic hardships.
Those living in rural areas make up close to 75 percent of the country’s poor. The World Bank classifies Liberia as a low-income, food-deficit country, reporting that half of the population is food-insecure or highly vulnerable to food insecurity. Orphans, street children and adolescent ex-combatants often find themselves on their own facing adult responsibilities with little support and no education.
Salesian missionaries have been working in Liberia since starting a vocational institute there in 1979. Since then, missionaries in the country have been developing programs with a focus on providing youth with the education and skills necessary to transform their lives and their country.