December 2008

Sudanese Scholarship Recipient Navigates First Semester at GW

Student organization Banaa coordinated a full scholarship at GW for Makwei Mabioor Deng, a refugee from Sudan.

By Jaime Ciavarra

Makwei Mabioor Deng has experienced culture shock like few other freshmen. The 22-year-old who spent 16 years in a refugee camp after fleeing his village in war-torn southern Sudan is now acclimating to American college life—from learning how to search books in a library to discovering the basics of indoor plumbing.

Deng, who arrived on campus this fall, was awarded a full scholarship to GW thanks to the efforts of the student organization Banaa, the Sudan Educational Empowerment Network. The scholarship comes with the caveat that after Deng completes his education, he must return to his native Sudan to work in public service promoting peace.

“I see this as an opportunity for me to further my education,” Deng says, “but also to help myself, my people, and my country.”

Founded in 2006 by four GW students—Justin Zorn, Jeff DeFlavio, Evan Faber, and Neil Padukone—Banaa has a mission of matching Sudanese refugees and university scholarships in the United States with the goal of equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to address the complex conflicts of their homeland. An Arabic word, Banaa means to create or build.

“Banaa is an attempt to empower Sudanese nationals who grasp the conflict’s complexity and nuance,” says DeFlavio. “We aim to support individuals who are best suited to address the roots of violence in the region.”

Now with chapters on 35 campuses across the country, Banaa has attracted such prominent supporters as former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. In September, it received an award from the Clinton Global Initiative, a nonpartisan program that promotes global action.

Deng is the first Banaa scholar and an ambassador for a program that he says has given him an unprecedented opportunity. Just a few months ago Deng was living in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where life was difficult and college nearly impossible to imagine. He arrived on GW’s campus never having seen a microwave oven or a washing machine, and was led around town by Banaa organizers who taught him how to do everything from order food at a restaurant to enter his residence hall with an ID card.

In class, though, Deng feels at home. He has always thrived in school, and at the refugee camp he earned top marks at a Jesuit secondary school. Having no means to attend college, Deng began teaching at the camp while searching for scholarships. He never dreamed his efforts would take him to a U.S. university—but here he is, living on the Mount Vernon Campus and spending long hours studying, determined to excel.

An economics and international affairs major, Deng aspires to go to law school so that he can help craft a Sudanese constitution that supports a fair and impartial judicial system. An effective legal structure, he says, will help solve problems outside of the battlefield.

Zach Hindin, a GW junior and Banaa organizer, says Deng stood out from other applicants because of his passion for learning and his commitment to change.

“He had a real, articulate, and demonstrated desire to go back and use what he has learned,” Hindin says. “GW is really integral to this because of its connection to the city and policymakers who work on peace development.”
From Capitol Hill to campus, Deng still needs a map to navigate the city. But in life, Deng knows where he is going, and he says GW is helping him find his path.

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