Here is a recap of our journey.
Since 2005, we have been finding ways to fulfill our mission in the fast changing environment of South Sudan.
Chapter 1 – Lost Boy Reunification
“Lost Boys” was the 1990s name given refugee children in the southern portion of what was then the largest country in Africa – Sudan. These children were driven from their villages during attacks by the dominant Arabic north against the southern population – primarily black Africans. The children walked hundreds of miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia, enduring starvation, lion attacks, bombing and disease; they were soon driven out of Ethiopia and forced to again trek hundreds of miles to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. These young fugitives grew up in Kakuma; some were eventually fortunate enough to obtain asylum, primarily in the United States, but also in Australia and other Western countries.
In 2001, Carol and Richard Rinehart became mentors to over a dozen refugee “Lost Boys” in Denver, Colorado. One of these boys, Isaac Khor Bher, received news that his mother was still alive in Isaac’s native village. In May 2005, after a shaky peace with the north had been reached, Carol Rinehart traveled with Isaac to southern Sudan to find what was left of his family. In that war-torn region, there were only intermittently passable roads, little clean water or electricity, few latrines and virtually no healthcare. Yet, the plea of Isaac’s village was not help for these fundamental needs. Instead, they asked for the education that had become impossible, after most schools were destroyed during decades of strife. This destruction followed centuries of outside exploitation and colonialism, during which southern Sudan was viewed primarily as a source for the slave trade and extraction of raw materials. Isaac and Carol returned to Denver with a mission: to help communities build schools in South Sudan. In October 2005 Project Education Sudan (now Project Education South Sudan or “PESS”) was formed.
Following Isaac’s reunion with his mother in the village of Konbeck, PESS reunited six other Lost Boys with their families, including our current Executive Director, Daniel Majok Gai.
Chapter 2 – School Buildings
These reunifications began a unique relationship between PESS and the remote communities in Jonglei state where these young men had been born. PESS partnered with these villages to build schoolhouses. These projects started in Isaac’s village of Konbek in 2005, but quickly expanded to Maar, Pagook and Gopmeth – a remarkable achievement given the lack of resources or infrastructure in these rural areas. Beyond school buildings, and with a view to promoting school attendance, especially by girls, PESS donated water wells, commercial grinding mills, cinderblock-making equipment, sewing machines and annual school supply money to the villages where the schools are located.
In 2011, over 99% of the southern Sudanese population voted to secede from Sudan, as permitted under the 2005 peace agreement between the warring parties to the civil war; the election created the world’s newest democracy – South Sudan. The 2005 peace agreement, the election and the new South Sudanese government was heavily supported by the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into development of the new nation.
While PESS was building schools in South Sudan, Lost Boy Daniel Majok Gai graduated from the University of Colorado in Denver and became a United States citizen. Daniel joined the PESS team as a volunteer and advocate, and in 2011, he returned to Jonglei state to become the PESS South Sudan Director, working locally to implement and oversee PESS’s educational projects. When PESS Executive Director Carol Rinehart took her well-deserved retirement in 2015, Daniel was chosen by the Board as the new Executive Director; he now leads PESS from his home in Jonglei, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Chapter 3 – Girls’ Education and Empowerment
Tragically, sparked by a rift between South Sudan’s top leaders, inter-tribal conflict broke out in December 2013. By 2019, according to the United Nations, an estimated 400,000 people - mainly civilians - had died and a third of the population had been displaced either internally or to neighboring countries. The brutal conflict has been distinguished by civilian murder and the use of rape and other gender-based violence as tactics of war. The conflict created huge economic hardship as well; inflation has run rampant and government salaries, including those of teachers, often go unpaid by the government.
Daniel and his family were directly impacted by the outbreak of violence in December 2013 as it immediately spread from South Sudan’s capitol to Jonglei state. Daniel, his wife and their infant son hid in the bush for days. Daniel’s son became critically ill before PESS was able to evacuate Daniel and his family to Kenya; fortunately, the infant recovered. Daniel returned to do the work of PESS in Jonglei within a few months, spurred by his passion for its work despite the dangers and hardships created by the conflict.
Currently, there is a fragile return to peace in South Sudan. Violence has been reduced but not eliminated. After several false starts, the warring leaders are, as of May 2020, taking limited steps to implement the Revitalized Peace Agreement of September 2018. The struggling nation faces huge impending challenges of potential famine, pandemic death and conflict renewal.
Since December 2013, conflict, population displacement and inflation have made school building impossible. Non-payment of teacher salaries in the public schools, war damage to the schools and population insecurity have rendered the public school system - limited as it already was - almost non-functional. But, while the physical and economic destruction in the country is profoundly discouraging, South Sudan simply cannot wait for peace and prosperity to educate its young people. Each child’s lost educational opportunity reduces South Sudan’s capacity to recover from this war. In such circumstances, how should PESS to move forward with its educational mission?
PESS has adapted by choosing direct investment in young people rather than bricks and mortar. Daniel and the Board believe that providing educational opportunities for girls and young women is South Sudan’s greatest educational need and one which will best serve the economic and democratic development of the new nation of South Sudan. In particular, PESS is working to overcome the lack of opportunity and the large gender disparity for young women in secondary education. On the ground in Jonglei, Daniel has matched promising young women with functional private schools so that these girls can receive a meaningful secondary education. Not only does it provide tuition, PESS supports its girl scholars with after school tutoring, global awareness education and peer-to-peer bonding. Its work is so popular that over 100 families are on a waiting list in hopes that their girls can join the program. We are only limited by our funding in providing education for girls who are hungry - not only make a better life for themselves - but to create a better country for their fellow South Sudanese.
The non-profit She’s The First has been an important partner in our girl scholar program. Founded by two young women from New York, STF sponsors chapters at American colleges that raise funds for girls’ education. In turn, STF supports vetted international nonprofits in developing countries that provide scholarships to educate girls. PESS is proud to be STF’s only South Sudanese partner.
South Sudan is one of the most challenging places on earth to deliver humanitarian aid but PESS is well-positioned to deliver solutions, even in the current environment. Most importantly, PESS has first hand knowledge. Daniel has lived in Jonglei since 2011 and is a well loved member of the community there. Daniel’s brother - Ngor Abiar- who is a native South Sudanese and now a US citizen - has spent several months in South Sudan during the last few years assisting PESS. Board member Ken Scott, in his previous work as one of three appointed members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission on South Sudan has traveled throughout South Sudan to report on conditions there. Link to the HRC Commissioners Final Report to Mar 6 2017. As a small, independent NGO with on-the-ground representation, PESS has direct connection and credibility with the local South Sudanese communities we serve. Having already worked in the harsh conditions of South Sudan for fifteen years, PESS has proven its ability to flexibly meet the changing conditions on the ground in South Sudan.
“The fact that our girl scholars are passing the South Sudanese national exams is proof PESS is doing the right thing. Seeing some South Sudanese parents allowing their daughters to pursue education like the boys gives me hope that the society is changing gradually and if we keep up the momentum, we will see more changes before long” - Ngor Abiar