Out of Africa: A survivor’s dream to serve

Samuel Johnson, a 2009 Alum, speaks to a French IV class at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. After graduating from Mercer University, he founded an orphanage in West Africa. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

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Samuel Johnson, a 2009 Alum, speaks to a French IV class at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. After graduating from Mercer University, he founded an orphanage in West Africa. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Haunted by horrific nightmares of a cruel past no one deserves, Sam Johnson persevered to build his dream for others.

He was eight when his father was killed in the Liberian Civil War, and the rest of his family could have suffered the same fate. But Johnson’s mother plotted their escape to Southeast Guinea – walking miles and days through the jungle with her five children, traveling at night to avoid being attacked by rebels and dangerous wildlife.

One of Johnson’s sisters never made it out. He and his remaining family members landed in a Guinea refugee camp, where they were fed one meal a day and stayed for years.

“There was a lot of hurt in my heart, a lot of bitterness,” said Johnson, now 32.

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Portrait of Samuel "Sam" Johnson at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. After graduating from Mercer University, he founded an orphanage in West Africa. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Portrait of Samuel "Sam" Johnson at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. After graduating from Mercer University, he founded an orphanage in West Africa. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Portrait of Samuel "Sam" Johnson at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. After graduating from Mercer University, he founded an orphanage in West Africa. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

But by the time he was a teenager, Johnson knew his life could take one of two paths: an evil one, driven by anger and a desire for revenge; or one focused on doing for others.

The words of his mother, a devout Christian who died in that Guinea refugee camp, pointed the way. “She always said the best way to live your life is to serve, especially if you come from a place of trauma,” Johnson said.

With help from friends and donors in the Atlanta area, Macon, and elsewhere, he built and runs an orphanage in N’zérékoré, in southeast Guinea. He calls it “Home of Hope,” and the hope is that orphaned and homeless children can have better lives.

The Georgia connection

Johnson was 17 when he and his siblings were brought to Georgia by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. None of the children had a formal education. But all were eager to learn and were welcomed at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs.

After two years and some intense tutoring, Johnson enrolled at Mercer University in Macon on a full soccer scholarship. There, Johnson, who is fluent in French, Guinea’s official language, caught the attention of John Marson Dunaway, then-professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Dunaway – who would go on to chair the board overseeing the orphanage and its fundraising arm, My Vision for Refugees – said Johnson had no computer skills, no knowledge of literature, and atrocious handwriting.

"But he was like a sponge. He was hanging on my every word, just so eager," Dunaway said.

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Samuel "Sam" Johson and John Marson Dunaway, Professor Emeritus of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Macon's Mercer University, pose for a picture during Dunaway's visit to Home of Hope, the orphanage Johnson started in West Africa with help from Dunaway and others. Courtesy of John Marson Dunaway

Credit: Photo courtesy of Professor Dunaway.

Samuel "Sam" Johson and John Marson Dunaway, Professor Emeritus of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Macon's Mercer University, pose for a picture during Dunaway's visit to Home of Hope, the orphanage Johnson started in West Africa with help from Dunaway and others. Courtesy of John Marson Dunaway

Credit: Photo courtesy of Professor Dunaway.

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Samuel "Sam" Johson and John Marson Dunaway, Professor Emeritus of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Macon's Mercer University, pose for a picture during Dunaway's visit to Home of Hope, the orphanage Johnson started in West Africa with help from Dunaway and others. Courtesy of John Marson Dunaway

Credit: Photo courtesy of Professor Dunaway.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Professor Dunaway.

Johnson graduated from Mercer in May 2013 with a 3.04 GPA and degrees in French, women and gender studies, political science and international relations.

"He just had this great thirst for learning. But probably more than that, he had this great yearning to serve," Dunaway said. "And specifically, he wanted to serve those people in the refugee camps where he had spent eight or nine years of his life."

Building an orphanage

Shortly after he graduated from Mercer, Johnson went back to Holy Innocents’ to see his former teachers and speak to some of the students. Teacher Teresa Cook, then relatively new to the school, heard him at chapel. She “was just impressed and moved” and wound up inviting Johnson and his future wife to stay with her family in Woodstock.

At Cook’s kitchen table, she and Johnson developed plans for making the orphanage a reality.

“I spent part of my childhood, not in Guinea but Kenya, and I felt a real connection with what he was trying to do helping folks in Africa,” Cook said.

She believed so much in Johnson’s dream that she provided the seed money to build the orphanage: $10,000 her late father had left her.

“Sam is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known,” said Cook, who sits on Johnson’s 12-member volunteer board with Dunaway. “He has reasons to be bitter, to carry a lot of the weight and baggage of growing up a refugee of war and living in poverty and losing both his parents. But his heart just shines through. His heart is 100% laser-focused on making the world a better place.”

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Samuel Johnson (left) talks as Teresa Cook shows her family photos from Kenya while they have a tea time together at Teresa's home, where Samuel and his wife Mary Thompson stay, on Saturday, November 22, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Samuel Johnson (left) talks as Teresa Cook shows her family photos from Kenya while they have a tea time together at Teresa's home, where Samuel and his wife Mary Thompson stay, on Saturday, November 22, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

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Samuel Johnson (left) talks as Teresa Cook shows her family photos from Kenya while they have a tea time together at Teresa's home, where Samuel and his wife Mary Thompson stay, on Saturday, November 22, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Seventeen children now live and go to school at Home of Hope, which in 2018 was recognized by Guinea’s first lady as the best orphanage in the region and second-best in the entire country, which has an estimated population of 13.7 million.

But Johnson’s dedication doesn’t stop there. While still at Mercer, he saved money from his campus job to return to Africa and build the refugee camp’s first public well.

He has since raised more money and built a second well. He also provides books for children in the community, where the closest schools are many miles away. And he delivers books and food to a couple of thousand people who live in the local leper colony.

“My dream of getting an education and going back to serve was at times the only thing that kept me going,” Johnson said in March, during his first visit back to the United States in three years.

Until he came to this country at age 17, he said: "I thought everyone in the world was mean and crazy.

“But after being here, I knew my mom was right – there are good people in the world,” Johnson said. “If I serve, I feel like I am bringing hope to the world, to my community, this state.”


MORE DETAILS

To learn more about Johnson or his efforts in Guinea, go to My Vision For Refugees at myvision4refugees.org