Makwei Mabioor Deng says he is in the midst of a dream, one he hopes he will never wake from.
The University awarded a full scholarship to the Sudanese 22-year-old who began his freshman year this month. Banaa, a student organization that began working to bring a Sudanese student to GW in 2006, helped coordinate the scholarship program.
Studying in America “was not something I was looking forward to because it was beyond anything I had imagined,” Deng said in an interview with The Hatchet.
He has come a long way from the refugee camp he once called home and even from the day he arrived here four weeks ago after a 16-hour journey, said Deng, wearing a grey GW T-shirt.
When his plane landed, he was given a GW crash-course not entirely different from that of most freshmen. He toured the monuments, learned how to use his GWorld card and consumed his first Starbucks coffee. In Africa the drink of choice is tea and only tired older people drink coffee, Deng said as he sat in Java City in Duques.
Deng began his life in Sudan, but he grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp. His family fled his native village when he was six years old.
“It was really tragic,” Deng said, recalling the Sunday that changed his life. He remembered playing outside the church with other children before gunshots ripped through the air and people began screaming in the streets.
Deng and his family had no time to retrieve any belongings. They journeyed through various towns throughout the region, ultimately landing in Kakuma, a Kenyan village. In Kakuma, Deng settled in a refugee camp along with his father and stepmother.
It was at the camp that the son of two illiterate parents would soon learn the importance of education.
“The only way for you to leave (Kenya) is to get a job and the only way to get a job is through education,” Deng said. “It’s as simple as that.”
When he initially arrived at the camp there was no school. But the Lutheran World Federation, a global umbrella organization for Lutheran churches, eventually built a facility for the camp’s youth.
Deng showed such great academic talents that the Jesuit Refugee Service, a international religious organization, offered him a scholarship to a Kenyan secondary school. But after he completed his secondary studies in 2004 he had no money to go to college. So he started teaching.
A few years later he received an application from Banaa.
“(Banaa) is not just a charity,” said Zach Hindin, one of the organization’s founders. “It’s a strategic initiative to build young leaders to rebuild Sudan.”
Banaa received more than 200 applications for the scholarship.
“Makwei really stood out” among the applicants, Hindin said. He believes it is Deng’s long-term vision that makes him a valuable pioneer of the scholarship program.
At GW, Deng lives in Clark Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus. His roommate is from South Korea.
“It was a bit funny,” Deng admitted. On his way to America, he had certain expectations about what his roommate might be like. He did not expect him to be a fellow foreigner. But he said they offer each other different perspectives, something Deng values.
Deng plans to pursue degrees in economics and international affairs and learn Arabic. When he returned to Sudan to get proper travel documentation, he “was shocked” to hear everyone speaking Arabic, a language he doesn’t understand.
“America is a beautiful country, but it was once like Sudan, with nothing,” Deng said. “Everything was done by people like me. I want to take the skills I learn and take them to Sudan.”
Deng said he hopes to return to Sudan after graduation to help ratify the Sudanese justice and legal systems. “There is an issue of injustice,” Deng said. “They don’t know where they can go and seek that justice.”
Although the University has welcomed him with open arms, Deng still faces a variety of challenges. He has little disposable money and worries about his mother and sister back in Africa, for whom he was the sole breadwinner.
Through a combination of fundraising strategies, Hindin and other Banaa members are trying to help Deng and his family. But this has proved to be an uphill battle.
On top of that, Deng has to adjust to a dramatically altered lifestyle filled with classes, friends, multiple choices of sandwich bread and interviews with major metropolitan newspapers.
And the reality of it all is still sinking in.
“When I boarded the airplane I didn’t believe I was on the airplane,” Deng said. “Even now sometimes I sit and think, ‘Is it really true?'”