Liberia: From the Slums of Wood Camp, Paynesville to Harvard University


Monrovia – Yassah was barely four years old when the civil war started in 1989. Like thousands of young girls, her future disappeared before it even began as the chaos and lawlessness would last for almost two decades. Growing up in Barclay Mission, Wood Camp, a suburb of the Commercial Redlight District Slum in Paynesville, there wasn’t much to look up to other than surviving. Even worse, the first phase of the war (1989 – 1991) resulted in a family separation where Yassah and her siblings were left with only their mother – Viola Lavelah (commonly called Ma Vee) in Monrovia as their father got cut-off in the countryside.    

At a very young age, Yassah developed a deep passion for maternal health and its role in community development. An inspiration she received from her mother who is a certified midwife and became the de facto doctor for thousands of families as hospitals were non – existent during the war. She grew up in a home that was often turned into a theatre for the safe delivery of babies and provision of maternal and infant care. After the war ended in Liberia, Yassah remained true to her passion and enrolled at Cuttington University where she completed her undergraduate degree in nursing. Upon graduation, she joined forces with her mother to officially create the MAVEE Maternity Clinic in 2008 as a social enterprise which currently hires eleven staff and services the slum community of Gobachop, home to more than 50,000 people. To continue caring for patients, many of whom cannot afford medical care, she took on two other jobs at the ELWA Hospital and the Grace D. Wallace Clinic as sources of revenue to sustain the joint effort with her mother. Additionally, Yassah turned her home into a community center providing weekly sexual reproductive health education for hundreds of young girls and providing care for victims of rape and teenage pregnancy. Given the increasing number of cases, she started a traditional midwifery training program where traditional midwives were brought into the main stream of providing preventative healthcare services at the same time intervening in the teenage pregnancy crisis in Liberia at large.

As a result of her hard work across slum communities in Liberia, she was selected in 2014 as part of Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative also known as Mandela Washington Fellows where she travelled to the United States to study Business & Entrepreneurship at the prestigious Notre Dame University in Indiana. As she prepared to return home after a successful completion of her studies, the Ebola crisis hit its peak in 2014. For the first time in her life she was presented with more than one option, but in her heart, there was always only one choice. She received an offer from the U.S. Department of State to extend her stay in the United States so that she would be safe from Ebola, which was ravaging Liberia at the time.

She refused the offer and informed the US State Department that she desperately wanted to get home. “How could I have remained when the people I love were sentenced to death? I decided to go back and help because Liberia is all I have. I love the United States, but Liberia is my responsibility.” She immediately returned to Liberia and began work side by side with her mother, a commitment they have stuck to for years.

Additionally, she was placed in the field as a representative of the Ministry of Health information team. She also conducted workshops, awareness lectures and door to door campaigns on combating and preventing Ebola.

News of her efforts spread throughout Notre Dame University Campus and they raised $26,000 to purchase enough medical supplies to fill a 40-foot container. “it may seem like we are a world apart, but we couldn’t have been closer as a result of the warmth and love that comes with this assistance,” she wrote in an email. To my family at Notre Dame … you refuse to feel sorry for us; instead, you are standing with us shoulder to shoulder as we take on a common enemy in the Ebola virus. For this, our community and country will forever be grateful for your belief in the dignity of humanity, “she wrote in an email.

“I found peace in the middle of the crisis when I went back home. I told my brother that I am here to save lives, but if I do get infected and die, then so be it.”     

After the Ebola crisis, Yassah resumed her quest for higher education and in the process decided to aim for the best possible education out there. When asked why, she responded by saying “I have seen and overcome too many barriers in life to back down from a challenge.”

True to herself, she applied to Harvard University in 2017 and was accepted into the Master of Medical Sciences in Global Health Delivery and Social Medicine. Unfortunately, she could not secure the funding required and had to defer her admission by one year to allow her take on the challenge of sourcing funding. One year later, she was able to get a full scholarship of over $150,000 USD and is set to begin her program on September 1, 2018. Thanks to the American Association of University women (AAUW) and Harvard University Financial Assistance Program, this impossible dream is now her new reality.

In her latest social media post, she reflected on her achievement, “I applied to Harvard because I believe it is among the best in the world and I will not settle for less for the thousands of girls and women in Liberia who are in so much need. I’ve always wanted the best especially for people who have never experience such their whole lives due to Poverty and marginalization. YES! I applied to Harvard because my greatest motivation was to inspire the girls in my slum community of GOBA-CHOP Market who like me were always reminded that we were not good enough to aspire for more.”

As she prepares for the next stage of her life, she has a strong message for everyone, “and to everyone who said NO! when I knocked at your doors for assistance, I say thanks as well, you made me stronger to aspire for more. YES! it’s time to make mama Liberia proud.”