Nova Scotia

How growing up in a refugee camp cultivated this Dal student's love of nature

Unity Cooper says her early experiences at the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana cultivated a life-long love of nature and a passion to protect it. Since moving to Nova Scotia in 2005, she's continued that work.

Unity Cooper is studying biology, neuroscience at the Halifax university

Unity Cooper was born and grew up in the Buduburam refugee camp near Accra, Ghana. She moved to Nova Scotia in 2005. (Unity Cooper)

When a young Unity Cooper got sick with malaria at a refugee camp in Ghana, her grandmother would often find natural remedies by foraging in the forest. 

She'd bring back plants, boil them in water and offer Unity a drink. 

"And when I drank the water a couple hours afterwards, I started to feel better and that's when my interest in the environment began," the fourth-year biology and neuroscience student at Dalhousie University told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week. 

Cooper says those early experiences cultivated a lifelong love of nature and a passion to protect it. Since moving to Nova Scotia in 2005, she's continued that commitment to conservation and has travelled back to Africa to support environmental work there. 

Cooper has worked with conservation groups in Liberia and Mozambique, and this summer joined the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society as a conservation assistant. (Unity Cooper)

Cooper's parents fled their home country of Liberia in 1990 during the first civil war in the country, which lasted until 1997. She was born in the Buduburam refugee camp near Accra, Ghana.

Life was difficult but it was also beautiful, she said. 

"I had my own garden bed that I grew some greens and vegetables in so they taught me growing up to appreciate nature and to take care of the environment because it's like our life support system," she said.

Conservation work in Liberia, Mozambique

Cooper has visited Liberia to work with the Society for Conservation of Nature, helping local landowners strengthen their relationship with the forest. 

She sees some similarities between environmental issues there and here in Nova Scotia. Both places are bursting with biodiversity but the challenge is making people aware of it, she said. 

There are differences, too. Conflicts in Liberia and Mozambique, where she's also been involved in conservation work, have left deep scars on the environment, Cooper said. 

"You can see that a lot of the wildlife was affected," she said of her trip to Mozambique before the pandemic. "You could see there was a lot of disturbance and damage to the forest. Like a forest that was bright and green after the war, it wasn't so green anymore." 

Unity Cooper, a fourth year student of biology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University, spoke with guest host Preston Mulligan about her childhood in Ghana and the work she's doing to conserve wilderness in Nova Scotia. 7:09

In Nova Scotia, she's come to appreciate the natural world in a different way. It's still a source of support and nourishment, but also a place that can be simply enjoyed. 

"Growing up in Ghana, I didn't know about hiking," she said.

But she learned quickly in Canada.

"We go into the wilderness, we go hike, we can go canoeing. We can just go for a walk or run ... and listen to the quietness of nature and just admire the beauty."

This summer, Cooper joined the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Nova Scotia chapter as a conservation assistant. She'll be involved in researching and promoting protected areas.

Cooper says hiking has become her way to rest, recharge and reflect. (Unity Cooper)

The forest is still a place of healing for Cooper. These days it offers a quiet place to rest and recharge. 

"If I was stressed during that day before I start my hike, when I go on my hike that stress is gone," she said. "I'm very appreciative. I'm very thankful to be able to get to experience this and enjoy it." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet