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​Refugees in PA Success Story

Thomas G. McGill Tappeh

When asked to talk about his life, Thomas G. McGill Tappeh starts with his grandfather. His grandfather, Tappeh, was a king of the Dan people living in Liberia, known as a powerful but peaceful king. Despite his stature, Tappeh understood that for his children to be successful, they would need to be formally educated. This belief was passed down through the generations to Thomas whose whole life has focused on education.

Thomas was born in Liberia in 1946. He did not start his formal education until he was a teenager, but he was a quick study and he impressed his teachers, including one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, making a name for himself as an excellent math student. After high school, Thomas decided to found his own high school — the first in his hometown, Tappita. Going against custom, Thomas named it after his grandfather instead of a politician because of Tappeh’s belief in education. Thomas acted as principal, teacher, and tutor to the students at Tappeh Memorial High School for many years before he announced his plans to attend university. When his acceptance letter reached home, a crowd gathered and lifted Thomas in the air, parading him around town as the first Tappita resident to attend university.

Violence broke out in Liberia in 1985 while Thomas was at university. He fled the country and came to Philadelphia to enroll in Drexel University’s math program. He was forced to drop out after a couple of semesters because of the expense but still hopes one day to finish. It was not until 1990 that the entire world learned about the violence in Liberia after which Thomas was granted asylum in 1992.

Thomas worked full-time for many years and volunteered with local high schools as a tutor. Eventually, he ran into the problem of not being able to prove that he was authorized to work in the United States because his asylum documentation was lost. Thomas was referred to HIAS and Council Migration Service where the Asylee Outreach Project helped him replace his lost I-94 card, receive a new Employment Authorization Document, and finally, become a legal permanent resident. The immediate benefit was that Thomas finally received his Social Security retirement benefits which saved his home from foreclosure. In this latest chapter of his life, Thomas is attending a two-year program at the Aircraft Institute of Maintenance in Philadelphia where he is learning to repair large aircraft and will train as a pilot. At age 63, Thomas is older than all of the other students and teachers. But as he learned from his grandfather Tappeh, “everything has a time and education has no end.”