Everyday Sacred: Every Opportunity is a Blessing

By Richard D. Hecht   |   May 3, 2022
From the beaches of Monrovia, Liberia, to our local sandy shores, Chernor Diallo has had an extraordinary journey filled with hard work, leadership skills, and a few blessed opportunities

Chernor Diallo arrived at LAX after a long, exhausting flight in May 2021. His host for his two-year stay in Santa Barbara met him. He had come a very long way in both time and space.

He had imagined that Santa Barbara would have skyscrapers and wide boulevards, like other American cities. But when he woke up in the morning of his first day here, he saw narrow streets, palm trees, and flowers of every imaginable color. And the beach and ocean immediately reminded him of his home in Monrovia, Liberia, and its beaches. He told himself that he must be a sojourner in paradise.

Chernor told me that his name in Fulani, the language of the Fula people, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa and especially in Guinea where his mother and father came from, means a scholar. And, he immediately added that his middle name was Amahdu, which is one of the familiar names of the Prophet Muhammad among West African Muslims. 

He grew up on Newport Street in the center of Monrovia and he described his family as belonging to the “struggling class” of Liberia. His father had a bodega, selling small things, like pads of paper or packages of tea and other small essentials. When he was 14, his mother died on a visit to her family in Guinea and his father went to the funeral, leaving him in the care of his older brother. Children have to pay fees for their junior and high school education and for Chernor that meant pedaling a rickshaw around the streets of Monrovia. He would work from 1 or 2 in the afternoon after his classes and get home around 10 pm. He would then do his homework.

But as he struggled to earn money and to do his schoolwork, he became interested in academic competitions. He joined his high school quizzing team and quickly became a team captain. Each team had four members, and each would be assigned one of the areas of the quizzes – science, social studies, mathematics, and language arts. Teams competed against one another to answer questions before their opponents. His area was language arts, and the examiner might read a sentence or paragraph from a novel and ask the name of the author. He recalled one competition in which the examiner read a single sentence from the introduction of Chinua Achebe’s great African novel Things Fall Apart and Chernor immediately identified it. It was through these competitions that Chernor received a scholarship to pay for his high school fees.

At a conference for the thousands of Liberian students who participated in these competitions he met one of the guest speakers, Saye-Maye Cole, who was the national coordinator of the International Baccalaureate Diploma program in Liberia. Cole is the Budget Director in the Ministry of Finance and Budget Planning with responsibility over the health, social development, and education sectors of the Liberian government. He encouraged Chernor to take the national exam for the United World College program that would provide a scholarship to attend college abroad. Hundreds take the national exam and on the first cut, 500 are chosen to advance. Then the number is cut down to 100 and then through interviews that number is cut to five who would receive a fellowship to continue their education abroad. Chernor was ranked seventh. Saye-Maye Cole told me in a phone conversation that he would have been ranked much higher, but he had come from a high school that had comparatively few resources. His highest scores were in leadership skills and Saye-Maye saw him as an individual who could potentially lead others and also be a team player. He put him on the waitlist and hoped that one or two of the higher ranked students might decline the scholarship.

Leaving Liberia 

But then something unpredictable happened. Saye-Maye Cole received an announcement from Nurit Gery, the Executive Director of a new high school in Israel called Givat Haviva International School (GHIS), that they were accepting applications for their first class of students. Cole told Chernor about the school, he applied, and was accepted. Gery told me that when she and her colleagues started GHIS, they had a dream. Their international school would bring together students from Israel and from all over the world to build a community of young leaders who would understand the power of diversity. “Over the last three years,” she continued, “this community formed. We crossed many divides and brought together youth who would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Part of our mission is to give a chance to those who have huge potential, but still need to be found. And we were lucky enough to find Chernor.” 

But being accepted to GHIS was just the beginning. He would need a visa to study in Israel and the closest Israeli Embassy was in Ghana. Saye-Maye Cole raised money from his friends to send Chernor to Ghana where he stayed with one of Cole’s friends while his visa application was being reviewed. Cole worked his friends to find the money to purchase his ticket. And, Nurit Gery and her school provided a scholarship.

I was interested in how Chernor thought of his decision to apply and then leave Liberia to study in a place he knew very little about. “Did you think your decision was courageous?”

“It was more like a miracle, to get this opportunity. People are blessed by this opportunity. If I would have stayed in Liberia, I would have become like so many others. A street seller. I would have dropped out of school. Perhaps I was courageous when I was young, but I thought of myself as being independent.”

“And how did you tell your brother?”

“Most of my family and my friends did not believe that I had an opportunity to study abroad. It is so rare for a person to leave Liberia.” Many were envious of him. He would become the first in his family to graduate from high school.

A New Chapter

Nurit Gery met Chernor at Ben-Gurion Airport and took him to the school. He told me one of the things he worried about was whether he would like Israeli food. However, he quickly learned to like it very much. But, shortly after he arrived he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and he spent three months in a Haifa hospital.

Among all those experiences he had at the school and in Israel and that he could never forget, one stood out. It was a school trip to Jerusalem. He remembered that in his Muslim school in Monrovia he had learned that anyone who prays in Jerusalem will have his or her prayers answered by God. He recalled that as he and one of his Palestinian friends from the school approached the entrance to what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary with its al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, his heart was pounding.

At the entrance, the two were stopped by the guards and they interrogated Chernor. They wanted to know if he was a Muslim. He and his Palestinian friend told them that his mother and father and his entire family were Muslims. One of the guards immediately produced a Quran and opened it to the very first surah, the first chapter, and asked him to read it. Chernor had learned to read the Quran in Monrovia and had virtually memorized this first chapter, titled “The Opening,” which is learned by children in their schools. The two boys then ran to al-Aqsa as the afternoon prayer was beginning.

Nurit had a great deal to tell me about the two years that Chernor studied at GHIS. Over those two years, the staff watched Chernor grow. “It was not always easy,” Nurit told me, “and he had many challenges to overcome. Our committed staff worked with Chernor and his classmates to make sure they excelled in every possible way.” Chernor was in the very first graduating class of GHIS – Nurit underscored that he did very well. But, like many other graduates of the school, he did not have a support network to lead him into the future.

Life in Santa Barbara

Under Gery’s leadership, GHIS has sought to develop connections with communities abroad that might provide those networks. Congregation B’nai B’rith here in Santa Barbara became a partner community and gave a home for Chernor’s next step in life.

Chernor began taking classes at SBCC last summer when he was required to take a basic English course. He was fluent in English. English was the national language of Liberia. However, SBCC did not consider English to be Liberia’s national language and thus he was required to begin his college experience with that course. 

But this did not stop him from wanting to become involved in the life of students at SBCC. When classes began this past fall, Chernor became interested in student government. He thought that he might run in the elections for the student Commissioner for International Student Affairs. However, the International Student Adviser told him that there was another student, senior to him, who was going to run for that position and suggested that he might consider running for the position of Student Trustee. He was very excited about this because it presented new challenges and he was elected to that position. 

The Student Trustee is the liaison between the student body government and the Trustees of the College. He told me that the monthly meetings of the Trustees have provided him with an opportunity to understand district-wide issues and also the politics of the State of California. In one of my interviews with him, he was on his way to Sacramento to participate in a state-wide meeting of student government representatives.

Kindred Murillo, the Interim Superintendent and President of SBCC, shared with me her thoughts of working with Student Trustee Diallo. “He is one of the strongest Student Trustees I have worked with during my 26 years in the community college. Not only is he diplomatic and wise beyond his years, he is grateful and humble, which just engages students who work with him. His authenticity coupled with his intellect is inspiring. With leaders like Student Trustee Chernor Diallo, I know the future will be better than the one we created for them.”

But he is already looking toward this coming fall and running for Student Body President. He has begun to develop his platform. First and foremost, he wants to help develop new ways for students to succeed, by among other things, increasing access to the library and the learning center. He also wants more affordable options in the cafeteria, in the bookstore, more options for low-income students, and to increase communication between students and their academic counselors.*

As I spoke with Chernor, I kept thinking about the very first sentence of Joan Didion’s The White Album, that intensely intimate collection of essays about California in the late 1960s when she was living in Hollywood and Malibu, waiting for Jim Morrison, interviewing the founders of the Black Panthers and writing on the prosecution of the Manson Family. She wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Perhaps a story like Chernor’s will remind us that indeed every opportunity is a blessing.

* This story was written before last week’s SBCC Associated Student Government elections – in which Chernor won the Student Government Presidency.

Richard D. Hecht is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at UCSB and this essay is one of his ongoing “Everyday Sacred” stories about the place of religion in our everyday lives


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