IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Student activism brings Sudan native to U.S.

University program provides students such as Makwei Mabioor Deng, who has spent 16 years in a refugee camp, with a free education.
Image: Joseph Makwei Mabioor Deng
Jeff DeFlavio, one of the student organizers of BANAA, a group founded at George Washington University to try to promote peace in Sudan through education, walks with Joseph Makwei Mabioor Deng, just arrived at from a refugee camp in Kenya. Jeff has been helping Makwei find his way around, deal with profound culture shock and adapt to life in the U.S.Marvin Joseph / Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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 will receive an award this week 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 this month, he was surprised that the people waiting to greet him were students about his age, said Justin Zorn, one of the founders of 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 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.

One night in May, DeFlavio called him on the telephone in the hut where Deng lived with other men to tell him he had won. "I started jumping around and around. People wondered what had become of me -- was I mad?" he said. When he explained, they joined the dance.

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 arrived in the United States the next night with just a suit and a small paper bag with tiny black-and-white passport photos of his family, a worn plastic photo album and a few books.

He wanted to see the White House and the Capitol right away, and Zorn and DeFlavio drove him around the monuments that night. They talked about the political conventions that were going on then: He was fascinated, not only because he knows that the next U.S. president could have tremendous impact on Sudan, but because he wants to experience firsthand how elections work and how democratic societies operate.

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.

Before Zorn and DeFlavio leave -- they graduated in the spring and will move abroad this fall, Zorn on a Fulbright grant and DeFlavio to work in an African hospital -- they are spending long days showing him around, explaining things such as how to use the dorm washing machines (which includes swiping an ID card and punching in a code to select a machine), why chicken tenders don't look like chickens and how to open, lock and unlock all the different kinds of doors on campus.

Deng said he was surprised that a woman spoke at the convocation, just as men had done. And he was shocked by the clothing. "Some people, they seem as if they are just wearing underwear, and they are moving around the street," he said.

His biggest worry is his family. He has no money to travel or call home, and he doesn't know what will happen to his mother, who had relied on his meager income.

He has been studying until long after midnight every night, his roommate said. And Deng said he remains in awe that he's really here. "It's wonderful. It's clean. It's quiet. It smells good. I just enjoy walking around."

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."