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All I wanted growing up was a pair of shoes to look sharp. Now I’m glad I never got them

Bullied and hungry as a child, Nyanquoi Suah used to curse God for putting him in a poor family. As an adult, he came to appreciate that he had a mom who taught him resiliency.

My mom taught me how to be resilient despite the hardships we faced as refugees

An illustration of a woman comforting a boy wearing colourful flip-flops.

This First Person article is the experience of Nyanquoi Suah, a Liberian Canadian living in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I came home from school and stormed into the room where my mom was sitting. "I want real shoes," I yelled at my mom as I wiped the hot tears that fell from my cheeks. My mom looked confused, because I had never spoken to her that way.

Earlier that day, my classmates bullied me yet again for wearing worn-out flip-flops to school. This bullying had started during the first semester of my Grade 5 year. I was living in a refugee camp in Guinea. I knew those flip-flops were all my single mother could afford. So, I patched up my green flip-flops with red and yellow parts from older flip-flops to keep me going. But those students didn't care. I suppose my footwear had the same colours as the Guinea flag, and that's why some students taunted me by calling me "Guinea flag." One of them had even snatched them off my feet and threw them some distance away.

After about five months of this continued mocking, I was done. There were just too many bullies to fight off. I told my mom I would not go to school until she bought me proper shoe. How she would, I did not care. She tried to comfort me, but at that moment, I only felt resentment that we were living in poverty in a refugee camp.

A collage of a man and a woman, both of whom are sitting down.

My early childhood in Liberia

I grew up on a farm in a small village in Nimba County in north-central Liberia. My village did not have a school, so I trekked about six kilometres each way on weekdays to attend primary school in a nearby town. My mom, a single parent to six children, did not have much financially. Still, she worked hard to feed us and keep us in school. When there was no food in the house, we supplemented our meals with bush yam and anything else we could forage.

Even though farming was hard work, I enjoyed helping my mom to grow food. I became so good at making fish traps from raffia palm that I was able to sell them and give the extra income to my mom.

But above all, I loved going to school. I especially loved sciences and math classes, and playing soccer during inter-class tournaments. However, my study time was limited between after-school farm work and dusk because we did not have electricity. Occasionally, I would study at night when we were lucky enough to afford kerosene for the lanterns. Sometimes, my school's administration would send me home for unpaid tuition. When this happened, I had no choice but to drop out from school and copy notes and study with classmates to keep up on lessons until mom could pay the fees.

Life as a refugee

I was a child when civil war broke out in Liberia in 1989. When I was hungry, I used to curse God for putting me in a poor family. I was too young to realize back then that I had been blessed to have a mother with a good soul and rich mind. Even though my bullies successfully made me drop out of school in Grade 5 because of my shoes, my poor mother did not give up on me.

Mom sat me down one night, fetched my past report cards, and asked me to look at my rankings within my grade. The result of her exercise? I saw, and knew, that I had come either first or second in all my classes. She told me that what I wore to school did not define my future; what I put in my head did. She pleaded with me to ignore the bullies and focus on my studies. And I heard her loud and clear. I went back to school and ignored the bullies.

My mom's advice shaped my life for good.

A boy stands in front of a tree. He is wearing a yellow shirt, black pants and a black tie.

When I was 13, the fear of being drafted into a rebel combatant group as a child soldier forced me into exile in 1993. My mother and siblings also went into exile with me. I lived in refugee camps in Guinea and Ghana for 15 years. Life was hard, but my mom's lessons taught me that no matter the setbacks, I can be resilient and achieve my goals.

As an adult, I also realized I had judged God wrongly. Whenever I came up against a barrier, such as the time I had to put off going to university for nine years because we couldn't afford the tuition, it was mom's advice that kept me believing that there will be light at the end of the tunnel for me.

Eventually, that light came in 2008. I got a scholarship awarded to refugee students and studied economics at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. One year after my university graduation, a brighter light came; I immigrated to Canada in 2013. The immigration officer who worked my case in Ghana saw my degree and told me that my "life would never be the same" in Canada.

Moving to Canada

I hoped life in Canada would offer me the stability and security that I couldn't find in my home country. But finding employment in a new country with my overseas education was a challenge. I felt frustrated and stuck — I wanted to return home and to my family, but I didn't have any better employment prospects back there.

When I felt all alone, I thought back to my mom's advice with my flip-flops. I couldn't change how people viewed my Ghanian degree, but I could pursue a Canadian degree. That lit a fire in me. I worked in a Purolator warehouse sorting packages in Edmonton for two years to raise enough money for tuition fees.

A man in a suit stands in front of a banner for the University of Toronto. He wears a scarf that has “Class of 2020” embroidered on it.

Eventually, in 2018, I graduated with high distinction from the University of Toronto with an undergraduate degree in international development studies. In 2020, I earned a master's degree in global studies, with a specialization in economic development, from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

The pandemic didn't allow me to soak in my accomplishments at that moment. So when I sat in Convocation Hall, gowned for my in-person graduation ceremony two-and-a-half years later, I found myself heading down memory lane: the poverty of my childhood, the bullies who mocked my worn-out flip-flops, the fear of civil war and refugee camps, and the challenges of immigrating to Canada.

It was a stark reminder of how far I had come, waiting to hear my name called as I crossed the stage in my new dress shoes to pick up my degree.

I silently cried.

I cried for overcoming all odds to achieve my dream. I cried because my mom, the person who never let me throw away my future because of what I wore to school, was not with me to see her once- bullied son graduate from one of the top universities in the world.

But I knew she was smiling down on me from heaven.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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