From Refugee to Berkeley Undergrad, Torbertha Torbor Gives Big Thanks

Torbertha Torbor with John Legend at the 2011 Freedom Award Dinner in New York City. Photo: (Getty Images)

By Torbertha Torbor, special to Act

I was 13 years old when the civil war in Liberia came to my hometown.  My mother, my sisters and I had to flee. My family was split in two as we started our journey on foot. My father did not come with us. He was a teacher, and he stayed behind in Liberia with his students. Our trip was filled with hunger and danger, but we were persistent. When we crossed the border into Ivory Coast, the United Nations gave us an opportunity to live in a refugee camp.

We later found out that the rebels in Liberia had attacked my father’s school. My family never heard from him again. I was heartbroken when I learned of the bombing. I felt that without my father, my future was destroyed, and I often cried, day and night. Eventually a time came when I decided to let go of my sadness and give life another chance.

But our troubles were not over. I will never forget the helplessness I felt when my older sister became ill in the refugee camp. Not being able to assist her or even find medical aid for her made me even more determined to somehow get an education. If I were educated, I would be able to help heal the pain and suffering of my sister and others around me. 

Thankfully, with the help of an International Rescue Committee (IRC) doctor, my sister survived her illness. We spent seven months in the refugee camp. Then, in 2004, the IRC arranged our resettlement in America – in California, a new world that gave me a new perspective on life and offered educational opportunities I hadn’t dreamed of.

Suddenly, what had seemed a hopeless life was filled with possibility.  I can’t tell you the joy I felt. I was excited to know that I could go back to school and fulfill the determination my mother had planted in me at a very young age: to seize every opportunity that comes my way and never take anything for granted.

Soon after arriving in California, I began researching pre-medical study programs I could participate in as a high school student. With help from my teacher, I was selected for the Stanford University Medical Youth Science program. I spent five weeks at Stanford Hospital and Clinics shadowing doctors, working in the operating room and studying anatomy. I did a well-received research project on asthma and how it affects different populations. And, thanks to an IRC scholarship funded by IRC Overseer and former refugee George Sarlo’s foundation, I am the first member of my family to attend college – and not just any college, but the University of California, Berkeley.

After many years, I no longer feel as helpless as I did in the refugee camp. Through my education, I can now look forward to making a positive impact on people’s health, both physically and mentally. My dream is to help other refugees by bringing medical aid to camps around the world. I understand how desperately people forced from their homes by war and disaster need medical care, and I am determined to help ease their suffering.

On Thursday, my family and I will be having Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco with IRC Overseer Betsy Blumenthal, who was generous to invite us, and her family. In addition to being thankful for my family, I am grateful to the IRC.  When I came to the United States I was placed in high school even though I only had a fourth grade education. With the help of tutors from the IRC I was able to catch up. I graduated in 2008 among the top ten students in my high school and now I am a senior at Berkeley. I am thankful for being given the opportunity to try to accomplish the American Dream.

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