I recently came across an old copy of a Dave Eggers book called What is the What, detailing the life of Valentino Deng, a Sudanese refugee who came to the US over 15 years ago. I had read it a decade ago, while traveling through South Africa, and was surprised to read about what had happened to Deng after the book’s release.
Deng was just 7 years old when a military group attacked his home in Sudan, forcing him to flee by foot and join the “lost boys” of Sudan. Here he wandered with other young boys who had escaped the civil war, finding a home in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and then Kenya. He spent nine years in the camps, where he learned to read and write, and eventually worked as a social advocate and reproductive health facilitator. He applied for refugee status in the US, promising himself that if he made it there, he’d use his blessings to help his fellow Sudanese citizens. His integration into the US was challenging, but he settled in Atlanta where he worked at a health club and attended a community college.
Five years after he arrived in the US, What is the What was published and he pledged to use the proceeds from the book to help his home town. He built a high school in Marial Bai, operating without tuition for its students. It has become one of the most sought-after schools in the country with only about 15% of students getting in. Deng has also tried to enroll at least 50% girls, and accepts almost all of the girls that apply. And after the success of the school, he was selected as the Minister of Education for Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where the school is located. He now is responsible for 875 schools in the District!
Deng’s story is a reminder to me that there are good people all across the globe, doing their part to further education for their fellow citizens. What’s more – some are able to turn incredible hardship, adversity and luck, into a lasting impact on the world’s youngest constituents. While I am often hyper-focused on the work we are doing – checking back in on Deng’s story was a good reminder for me that Joel village is not the only village, Eastern Province is not the only province, and indeed, Zambia is not the only country, in dire need of educational support systems.