By Mackenzie Elmer
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa.
Displaced from her homeland by civil war, Christine Seyboe Tour spent her time saving female refugees from prostitution by teaching them a trade.
The Liberian refugee and young entrepreneur spoke at the University of Northern Iowa on Wednesday. She’s visiting her brother, whom she lost contact with during her country’s civil war. He had been adopted by an Iowa couple.
“You have to recognize how powerful a story this is,” said Michael Blackwell, director of UNI’s Center for Multicultural Education, who organized her visit.
Tour spent most of her adolescent life moving between refugee camps after fleeing the fighting that enveloped her homeland in the 1990s.
“We were in school and all of a sudden we just heard running and we started to run,” she said, describing the day the war reached her hometown.
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“There were bombs and shooting all around us.”
She lost her father in the scuffle and was forced to walk to the Liberian border with Guinea. After waiting for days, they were finally admitted into a refugee camp.
“Life was bad at that time,” Tour said. There was very little food, no running water and no hospital. But at least Guinea was peaceful.
After a few months, Tour’s family tried for a better life at a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast. But it was difficult to communicate since French was the dominate language and Tour was used to English.
Finally, they settled in Ghana. Life improved a bit. There were English-speaking schools and the United Nations, which was often a food source for refugee camps, had a large presence there.
“As a refugee, you don’t have a home. You just have to find a place that’s better,” she said.
But Tour’s mother, stricken by grief, confined herself to their home in the camp. They didn’t have money to buy matches and candles for light when night fell, and U.N. foodstuffs were mostly canned and foreign to West African palates.
Tour decided to ask for a job cleaning a local hair and nail salon in exchange for learning the trade. After gaining those skills, customers started to tip her for her work. Earning a steady $10 a day, she was able to buy goods for her family and eventually opened up her own shop inside the refugee camp.
Many refugee women were forced into prostitution, often left for dead in the streets. Tour couldn’t ignore the plight of these women, so she began to roam the streets at night, encouraging them to learn her trade.
“Working in a shop improved my life. … I would like to help the girls that were on the camp so that they would not go to stand in the dark and the rain every night,” she said.
By 2005, she had transformed her shop into a school. It had attracted so many girls, they were outgrowing the space they let on the front porch of a church.
She never wanted to return to Liberia but agreed to a short trip to visit family after the fighting had ceased in 2008. There, Tour met a young Liberian girl working as a prostitute whose family had mostly died during the war.
“In Liberia the condition was worse because most of the men that were on the street looking for prostitutes were ex-combatant rebels,” she said. “Every morning you find a girl lying in the street dead. It was then I realized I should go back and help those girls back home.”
Tour opened up another school of cosmetology in Liberia, which now boasts 31 enrolled girls.
Her efforts were finally recognized. Tour was selected for Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women Program, which provides female entrepreneurs a business and management education.
By 2010, she found herself on a plane to Washington, D.C., meeting with officials like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton through that program.
She’s now looking for funding to expand her school back home and possibly continue her education here in the U.S.