In partnership with Mount Royal University’s Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they’re helping shape our city.
Francis Duahn’s life in Liberia was unexpectedly stripped from him because of a brutal civil war. After fleeing conflicts in several African countries he found refuge in Canada.
However, having struggled to find stability in his new home, he now works to help others gain that same stability in Africa with a new web-based service that connects vulnerable workers with jobs.
Duahn’s childhood was one of the most stable times of his life. His father worked with a Liberian mining company. He had a roof over his head and food to eat every day.
That little privilege did not last long though. In 1989, former Liberian government official Charles Taylor invaded his own country in an attempt to overthrow its president, Samuel Doe.
Doe responded by attacking the Gio and Mano tribes that supported Taylor. Duahn was from the Gio tribe.
On the run
By 2003, the Liberian war had claimed more than 160,000 lives and left half of its 2.5 million people displaced and refugees in West African countries.
Duahn was among them.
When Duahn was 12, his village was invaded by a tribe called the Krahn who were opposed to Taylor. Blood was shed. Men and children were taken for war and Duahn’s family was torn apart.
“We all went different ways, I was with two of my younger brothers, we were escaping from the gunfire, and one of them got shot in the back of the head, and he fell,” he says.
Duahn kept running, gripping the hand of his five-year-old brother, escaping the gunfire.
He spent the next 15 years at different refugee camps in West Africa and didn’t see his parents for many years.
“We were at camps where the tribe that was fighting against my tribe in Liberia were controlling things, so I couldn’t say my name or even speak my own language because I would get killed,” he said.
War always seemed to follow him, spreading into neighbouring countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.”
“A lot of our friends who were the same age as us got killed, some of them ran away and joined some other war factions just to live, because if you don’t have guns you don’t survive,” he said. “But I have never believed in violence, I refuse to be a part of it so I kept running.”
His running took him to refugee camps.
“Sometimes at these camps you got no food, no medication even though you are supposed to get these things from the United Nations. No medical assistance, no nothing. There would be days without food. It wasn’t just my mouth to feed, it was my brother too.”
Thousands of people needed refuge and only a small number were actually granted it. As a result, Duahn thought that his chances of leaving Liberia were slim.
International aid workers at Tellkoro camp in Guinea held interviews for people who may qualify for placement into another country.
New home, new challenges
After these examinations in 2005, a United Nations agent told Duahn that he and his brother were going to start a new life in Windsor, Ont.
He was in complete shock when he arrived because he “expected to be monitored, to be shown the way to do things” by the government.
“But that didn’t happen, so pretty much I had to do everything for myself, by myself, which was very hard,” he said
He tried to find a job, but with no experience he found himself working as a farm labourer for $6.50 an hour.
Leah Hamilton, a Mount Royal University professor who investigates the settlement and information needs of Syrian refugees, says such an experience isn’t uncommon.
“A common barrier between all refugees is language proficiency, understanding how to apply for jobs in Canada, I think some major economic barriers are around poverty and difficulty finding suitable housing, it’s very difficult.”
She adds, “I think there, social and economic integration are mutually reinforcing … if you have a good job and suitable housing, that’s going to facilitate social connections, and if you have more social connections you are going to be more likely to find a job and suitable housing.”
Schooling opens doors
Education gave him the opportunity to gain these skills, and network with others
Taking ESL classes, getting his GED, graduating from college and now pursuing a degree in international business at the U of C, made Duahn the entrepreneur he is today.
“The desire to become a better person in an environment where finding a job is predominantly discriminatory drove me to become an entrepreneur,” he said. “For a refugee to acquire a job in Canada, you need Canadian experience or some sort of education for some low wage jobs. Being my own boss put my destiny in my own hands.”
Starting a business
Duahn thinks refugees and immigrants shouldn’t have to feel lost after coming into a new country, so he came up with a business idea to help them.
“It’s called Kwado, meaning unity. Refugees are always in survival mode trying to make a life for their children, if they don’t, the cycle of survival mode will never end. Kwado is there to end that cycle,” said Duahn.
Kwado was founded in June 2017 and connects people that are low income, refugees or immigrants in West Africa to businesses near them. It let employers find the skills they want, while making job seekers more aware of work that’s open to them, all on a web-based service.
In creating the website, Duahn partnered with Medina Dehatee, William Akoto, Richelle Matthews and Robert Schulz, a professor of strategy and global management at the U of C.
“He’s probably had the most dramatic change in any student I’ve had in my 44 years of teaching,” said Schulz, Duahn’s mentor and former professor.
“The Francis I saw from the first week, was someone who didn’t participate in class. Then he started to realize his ideas were good.
“He is very dynamic, very outgoing, and the passion showed up, I gave him the encouragement to use the skills that he already had.”
Duahn and his team took plenty of steps to make the idea of Kwado into a reality, testing out the product in Ghana.
That meant piloting it at refugee camps and connecting migrant workers to jobs in Ghana’s construction Industry.
“I know what it’s like to struggle, lose everything in the blink of an eye, go from complete light to darkness and I don’t wish it upon anyone else,” Duahn said. “I think I have a role to play in my society. To influence change back home.”