Makwei Mabioor Deng looked out the shuttle-bus window on his way to class at George Washington University and wondered aloud whether there were crocodiles in the Potomac River. Three weeks earlier, he had never been on a plane, never heard of a microwave oven, never seen a library full of books and computers.
Now, having spent 16 years in a refugee camp after his Sudanese village was destroyed, he has fast-forwarded into a new life as a college student in the United States. He is studying economics and Arabic and hopes to go to law school. He also is puzzling through numbered streets and marveling over air conditioning, experiencing a culture shock like few college freshmen.
He is here because of the work of a handful of GWU students who helped develop the scholarship program that provides Deng a free education. The student activists protested violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and became concerned about the larger plight of that country, including the people who fled an earlier civil war in the south. They wanted to create long-term change by helping Sudanese students study here and then go home to improve their country.
Their idea is spreading as Darfur has captured the imagination of student activists across the country. The GWU students’ organization, which has chapters on 35 campuses and received an award last month from the Clinton Global Initiative, attracted such prominent supporters as former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and inspired several schools to begin developing similar efforts. Tufts University in Massachusetts is interested in funding a similar scholarship if an appropriate applicant is found, and Mills College in California has committed to the program.
It is all beginning with Deng, a 22-year-old from southern Sudan. He has been given a rare opportunity, but there’s a condition. When Deng has finished his education, he will have to leave the United States behind: If he chooses not to go back to Sudan to work in public service promoting peace, he will have to find a way to repay the grant of more than $200,000.
He never had a moment of hesitation about coming. “This is something that is very great,” he said. “When I come back to Africa, I will have something that I can use to help myself, my people and my country.”
When Deng arrived at Dulles International Airport last month, he was surprised that the people waiting to greet him were students about his age, said Justin Zorn, one of the founders of Banaa.org. The word “banaa” is Arabic and means to build or create.
That’s what the students were trying to do: build a movement. They started with protests on campus four years ago, trying to persuade university leaders to divest from Sudan. Zorn, Jeff DeFlavio and other students ended up talking with administrators about ways to use the power of education to help the root causes of the long-running, complex problems there. GWU has not divested, but the school is funding Deng’s full scholarship.
The students had to create Banaa from scratch, writing a business plan and convincing skeptical donors that college kids could pull it off. Their fundraising has included selling doughnuts at Metro train stops and getting grants from several foundations. They have raised about $24,000 and are continuing to seek money to be able to hire staff for Banaa.
They reached out to potential students through government agencies and aid organizations and received more than 150 applications. They filtered out people who seemed to want to escape to the United States.
“Since one of our main objectives is to prevent brain drain,” Zorn said, “the biggest criteria here was ensuring that everyone who became a finalist was entirely committed to going back and working in a field to reduce the likelihood of conflict.”
Deng stood out: His grades and recommendations were outstanding, his English fluent, his essays eloquent. As a lawyer, he said, he would advocate for a new constitution, democracy and courts.
He left Sudan in 1992 when he was 6 years old, fleeing a civil conflict in the south that preceded the Darfur crisis. He had never been back. One Sunday morning as he played outside, his village in southern Sudan came under attack and his family fled, eventually ending up in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Life was difficult there, with one meal a day and not enough water. But there was a school, which he loved. He learned English and Swahili and graduated with top marks.
Unable to pay for college, he took a job in 2005 teaching in the camp as he applied for scholarships to Kenyan and Sudanese universities. Another teacher told him about Banaa, and he filled out the application.
Still, it wasn’t easy getting to the United States. He had no passport or identity card that would allow him to get a student visa. From afar, the Banaa students spent the summer scrambling to help unravel bureaucracies and waking in the middle of the night in a panic to wire money. The day before he was to leave Nairobi, he got clearance from the Department of Homeland Security and the approvals for his visa. It all happened so close to his departure that his few belongings were still at the refugee camp, and he had no time to go back to say goodbye to his family and friends. He spoke to his mother by phone, and she warned him, “Don’t get lost in the world, in America.”
He is studying Arabic because he realizes that if he wants to effect change, he has to learn the language of those in power. He said economics is important because he believes competition for resources is one of the main causes of fighting in Sudan, and sociology will help him understand how to strengthen societies. He realizes he will be returning to a homeland that he has not known since childhood and will have much to learn.
He’s not worried about the academics; he’s determined to excel. What will be trickier will be to learn about American culture.
When a student asked him how he would change the government in Sudan without getting sent to jail, he answered, “I could be put in jail, but that would not be the end of it, because other people could see me doing what I was doing. … You allow them to see that what you are doing is not only for yourself, but for all the people.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com
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