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Hopes for Liberia grow from a student’s perseverance

October 22, 2019

Thompson Scholar Debah Tiah plans to apply her Maxwell MPA to humanitarian needs in the nation from which her family fled.

Debah Tiah
Debah Tiah

Debah Tiah was born in Liberia, in 1996, about midway into the nation’s devastating, 14-year civil war. “I was little, but I remember hearing gunshots overhead,” she says. “I remember hiding in the bushes and hiding in a friend’s house.” At 5, she, her father, and seven siblings fled Liberia for a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea — having lost track of Tiah’s mother. Two years later, the family came to the United States.

Today she’s a Master of Public Administration (MPA) student at Maxwell. Inspired by the insecurity and trauma she survived, Tiah hopes her MPA degree will serve her interest in social service, and lead to a nonprofit helping vulnerable women and children in Liberia.

Tiah’s journey to Maxwell was littered with “mountains to overcome.” She is now estranged from her father and doesn’t know where all her siblings live. She was cared for by an aunt, and then was briefly homeless, until finding refuge with a church member’s family. In college, at Rowan University, she studied sociology and psychology, but had nowhere to go during breaks until a staff member arranged for her to stay on campus.

That’s been the pattern of her life: Lots of people helped along the way. She remembers refugee camp volunteers, distributing food and medicine. Now she wants to direct her gratitude, empathy, and resilience to others who need help. “I was the recipient,” she says. “I’ve been on the other side.”

She plans to use information from courses about NGOs, budgeting, and leadership to start an organization in Liberia. She hopes to lead it, at first, from a base in America, as she gains experience in the nonprofit or public sector; then she will return to work in her native country. She sees that as an obligation. “It’s up to Liberians in the diaspora to go back and help,” she says.

Tiah’s career goals took shape after attending Maxwell’s Public Policy Camp in September 2018, co-sponsored with the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. The day-long program was aimed to encourage the participation of young students of color in the policy field.

The policy camp “opened my eyes about the field,” she says. “I realized I can do anything I want to link my personal history to public service.” Equally important to the former refugee, during the policy camp she “felt a sense of community. It felt like family.”

As an MPA student, Tiah was awarded the Jean and Dick Thompson Endowed Graduate Scholarship, which supports Maxwell graduate students across the disciplines. The scholarship was made possible by members of Syracuse University’s Board of Trustees in honor of former Syracuse Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Thompson ’67 MA (PSc) and his wife, the former C. Jean Terry (a 1966 Syracuse graduate in social science education).

To Tiah, who has benefited from so much assistance along the way, the Thompson scholarship represents “another helping hand. They’re helping me help others. They’re contributing to my story,” Tiah says.

Escaping war and financial instability tested her strength. Disconnection from relatives and uncertainty about where she would live made for some lonely days. But don’t pity her. “It could have been worse,” she says. “I could have been in the war. I could have been killed. I was blessed to go to school.”

When Tiah faces challenges, she chooses the long view. “‘Yes, I’m going through this now, but it’s not the end,” she tells herself at difficult moments. “Everything that happened to me was leading to this.”


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