BUDUBURAM, Ghana — Karrus Hayes is a Liberian refugee in Ghana who keeps kids in school, arranges cataract surgery for the elderly and recruits volunteers through Facebook.
Now comes the hard part.
After years of convincing donors continents away to trust him with their money and working alongside them mixing cement to build a school for his refugee camp in Ghana, Hayes wants to start over in his home country of Liberia.
That’s because the Buduburam refugee camp — opened in 1990 and currently home to more than 25,000 Liberians — is closing in March and its residents are being encouraged to return to Liberia, a country that is rebuilding after a 14-year civil war that killed 200,000 people and displaced many more.
“I have the dream that we can have a greater school in Liberia,” Hayes says, scanning the schoolyard where dozens of children in orange and black uniforms snack on cassavas and yams.
What Hayes built here, down a bumpy dirt road off a two-lane highway 27 miles west of Accra, is a nine-classroom school that is completely free for its 350 children. The school includes a library, a computer room and a curriculum that stresses conflict resolution and leadership skills.
In Liberia, Hayes wants to build not just a school but an entire village, on 100 acres in Bong County that he says he’s already secured, at no cost, from a local tribal chief. Hayes says the development will include revenue-producing businesses that Hayes and his Australian architect partner say could be a model throughout Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries where nearly 250,000 children were orphaned by war and disease.
It’s a long way from his 1996 journey aboard the Bulk Challenge, a one-toilet Nigerian freighter carrying more than 1,500 Liberians fleeing fighting in Monrovia that lingered for 10 days along the coast, denied entry by several governments. Three people died. Eventually, Ghana accepted the refugees.
When Hayes arrived at Buduburam camp nearly 10 years ago, he was surprised to see that many of the camp’s 12,000 children were not in school.
“I got upset really because if I think on the situation in Liberia, it was because of the lack of education that we had a war,” said Hayes.
That started Hayes, a 33-year-old high school graduate who sold candy and biscuits on the streets of Monrovia before the war uprooted him, on a quest to start a school for young Liberian refugees. He persuaded his priest to allow classes in the church. He convinced Carolyn A. Miller, who years earlier had mailed Hayes $25 to pay for his school fees, to contribute $1,000.
Many more volunteers and donors have helped the school stay afloat thanks to word of mouth and some media coverage. Hayes connected with volunteers through Facebook and the school can also be found on Wikipedia.
But as Hayes turns his focus to Liberia even staunch supporters have doubts. The war-torn country is in ruins, volatile and the population is traumatized. Many donors say they can only operate in a more stable country like Ghana, where there is reliable electricity and better access to clean water.
For instance, Unite For Sight, a charity that Hayes recruited to Buduburam, does not plan to set up operations in Liberia anytime soon.
“We have a lot of infrastructure in Ghana, so it’s much easier for us to support initiatives in Ghana as opposed to Liberia where we don’t have any eye clinic partners on the ground for example,” said Jennifer Staple, founder of the American organization, which provides eye care to the poor in Africa, Asia and North America.
Still, she doesn’t count out Hayes. “He really mobilizes people, and I think that’s one of his greatest strengths,” she said. “People recognize how dedicated and motivated he is.”
The odds are daunting but Hayes says he is “100 percent confident.” He has a dream of a permanent school that will educate Liberia’s future leaders to prevent wars. The obstacles are huge but, based on his success in creating a school out of nothing at Buduburam, Hayes may very well succeed.