Makwei Mabioor Deng tossed a hefty, two-inch-thick calculus textbook into a cardboard box at the foot of his bed. The box was already filled with dozens of other books.
“How are you going to take all these with you?” asked his friend Evan Faber, a fellow graduate of George Washington University.
Thursday was move-out day from Deng’s dorm, and Deng was sifting through his belongings. There was the bright green T-shirt, given by a friend, that proclaimed “Don’t talk to me if my headphones are in.” The Dan Brown novels Deng bought after seeing a History Channel special on “The Da Vinci Code.”
In about 24 hours, Deng would board a flight to South Sudan, a homeland he hadn’t seen in two decades.
A scholarship created by Faber and other GW students had allowed Deng to attend the university for free. He arrived never having experienced American culture. Scanty American clothing surprised him. The fact that students had brought him to the country — not wise, old, rich men — fascinated him.
Now that he has earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics, Deng, 26, is heading home. He knows he can help fix the problems that plague his country. He’s just not certain how. Deng said he would look for a job, preferably one in government, or possibly at a nongovernmental organization.
“I can say I’m not the same as when I came, because I’ve learned a lot,” Deng said. The experience made possible by the scholarship “has given me a better way to look at things, a better way to see what has been applied somewhere else and see how it can be applied in my local area.”
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Room 729 in GW’s Mitchell Hall is cramped. An old JVC television sits on a wooden chest of drawers next to a wooden desk. A blue GW mug is filled with odds and ends — change, a half-finished box of orange Tic Tacs, Elmer’s Glue.
Nearly every surface in the room is covered with Deng’s books. “I only do three things,” Deng said, smiling and counting on his fingers. “Read, eat and sleep.”
“And write,” Faber added. Deng nods.
Faber opens an old blue suitcase he had lent Deng years ago. From inside, he pulls a box filled with stacks of business cards and bookmarks advertising a textbook in the Dinka language Deng had written two years ago — the first of its kind in the language of the biggest tribe of South Sudan, Deng said. “He spent an entire summer. That was basically a huge project designing this textbook,” Faber said.
In 2006, a few GW students — including Faber — started a group they called Banaa to bring long-term change to Sudan by educating Sudanese students. They were concerned about the effects of the civil war there. In Arabic, banaa means to build or create.
The next year, they put out a call for scholarship applications through more than 2,000 contacts working in Sudan. They got 170 responses. The pool was narrowed down until Deng became Banaa’s first scholar.
It cost about $325,000 to finance Deng’s stay in the United States — including room and board, tuition, a stipend and a travel allowance, Faber said. The financing, secured by Banaa, came from GW and from private donations and grants. Faber said GW waived requirements for TOEFL — an English proficiency test — and SAT scores for Banaa scholars.
The scholarship is contingent on the recipient pursuing a career that promotes peace and public service — and returning to his or her home country.
Two more scholars have been added to the program: Samir Ummad from the Nuba Mountains and Mohamed Ahmed from Darfur. Both attend the University of Rochester, which began accepting scholars in fall 2010.
The program is expecting another scholar this fall.
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South Sudan is the world’s newest country. Its citizens voted for independence last year, but what followed has been a difficult period marked by constant tensions with the northern neighbor from which it seceded, Sudan. Religion, oil and global alliances have been points of contention.
Fighting is constant, Deng said.
Last July, a day before South Sudan officially became independent, Deng started a blog offering philosophical and political commentary on Sudan. He said it draws 500 to 600 visitors a day and has had a total of 200,000 since he started it.
In his room, Deng pulled a hangar out of his closet and tugged on a belt that was still looped through brown slacks. He grabbed a copy of Foreign Affairs magazine.
“My subscription is for the U.S.,” he said to Faber. “Do you think it will work in Africa?”
Deng acknowledges that he is unfamiliar with what daily life is like in South Sudan. In 1992, Deng’s family fled their village in Kongor, Sudan, escaping to a refugee camp in Kenya where Deng stayed for the next 16 years.
Banaa has tried to help Deng find a job in South Sudan, putting him in touch with NGOs and activists, but the country’s financial and political turmoil has made it difficult.
“You really need to be on the ground there, particularly with what’s going on right now with how new the country is,” Faber said.
“I am almost like a foreigner to that country,” Deng said. “The first thing would be to get myself to become one of them. I know it won’t be easy.”
As Deng finished packing, deciding what to take, he joked that some of the odds and ends might one day be valuable, like things from the childhood in Kenya some imagine President Obama had.
“You never know who I might be,” he said.