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Student Activism Brings Sudan Native to GWU

 From left, Jeff DeFlavio, a George Washington University graduate and organizer of the scholarship program, helps Makwei Mabioor Deng acclimate to campus.
From left, Jeff DeFlavio, a George Washington University graduate and organizer of the scholarship program, helps Makwei Mabioor Deng acclimate to campus. (Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

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 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 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."


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