It would be easy to forgive Abraham Awolich '05 if he chose not to look back. For Awolich and his fellow "Lost Boys," memories of home are rooted in genocide, war, displacement, a youth and young manhood spent on the run and in refugee camps. But the Sudanese native/American citizen says turning his back on his past is not in him, nor in his culture.
"The structure of our society makes it very hard for someone to do that — for someone to say, 'I just have to forget.' We are very tied to the families," Awolich says. "An individual does not see himself as just an individual, he sees himself as part of the larger group."
The strength of that ethic has motivated a circle of Sudanese now living in the United States to join with friends in creating the New Sudan Education Initiative. The fledgling effort is dedicated to building 20 schools for secondary education by 2015 as southern Sudan re-emerges following the comprehensive peace agreement of 2005.
In addition to Awolich (the initiative's co-director), the UVM connections to NESEI are many. Atem Arok Deng, a UVM junior, took a key role in the conception of NESEI after he traveled to Uganda to visit his family with Robert Lair, an adjunct professor of religion at St. Michael's College. The need for education, particularly secondary education, was among the many pressing needs they saw on their trip back to Africa. As Deng, Lair (now NESEI co-director), Awolich, and others in Burlington looked for ways to help in Sudan, it became apparent that secondary education was a clear void.
This network of friends that began at UVM and in Burlington, continues to reach outward as NESEI grows. Awolich says they've connected with other Sudanese and started groups in 16 different states as the effort to raise funds and awareness continues.
Yei, a town of 25,000 people, is the likely location for the construction of NESEI's first school. It boasts the advantage of a road to Uganda, a clear route to roofing, cement, nails, the essentials of building a school and a brighter future for one of the world's most troubled regions.
"Our mission is to create peace through education," Awolich says. "If we give more people more skills, they can find jobs and they will not have time to take arms and be violent."