Chapter 1 – Lost Boy Reunification
In 2001, Carol and Richard Rinehart became mentors to over a dozen Sudanese “Lost Boys” in Denver, Colorado. This connection began with the bicycle that Carol delivered to Isaac Khor Bher two months after his arrival in the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya. The Rineharts’ gift of the bicycle evolved into their life-changing commitment to provide nurture and support to South Sudanese young people. This commitment eventually led to the creation and success of Project Education South Sudan.
“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 civilian 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 May 2005, after a shaky peace with the north was reached, Carol traveled with Isaac Khor Bher to Sudan to find what was left of his family in his home village. In that war-torn region, there were only intermittently passable roads, little clean water or electricity, few latrines and virtually no healthcare. Food was short and illness rampant. Yet, the plea of the villagers was not help for these fundamental needs. Instead, they asked for the education denied them by centuries of outside exploitation and colonialism, during which southern Sudan was viewed primarily as a source for the slave trade. Isaac and Carol returned to Denver with a mission and a promise to fulfill: 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: Lual Awuok, Panther Abuk Kuol, Ayuel Yiep Koch, Jacob Thuom Lueth, John Panrach Mach, and John Abraham Panchol in 2007; and Daniel Majok Gai in 2008.
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 areas. Beyond school buildings, and with a view to promoting school attendance and economic development, 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 the north, as permitted under the 2004 peace agreement backed by the United States, and thereby created the word’s newest democracy – South Sudan. In the meantime, in Denver, reunited PESS Lost Boy Daniel Majok Gai received his B.A. in psychology from the University of Colorado and became a United States citizen. Daniel joined the PESS team as a volunteer and advocate, and in 2011 returned to Jonglei state to become the PESS South Sudan Director, working locally to implement and oversee PESS’s educational projects.
Chapter 3 – Community Leadership and Empowerment
Sparked by a rift between South Sudan’s top leaders, inter-tribal conflict broke out in December 2013. The fighting was particularly fierce in Jonglei, resulting in thousands of deaths and widespread displacement of the civilian population during the months of open conflict there. After surviving on muddy swamp water for 10 days in the bush during the worst of the crisis, Daniel was able to evacuate to Nairobi with his wife and 10-month-old son.
In addition to civilian misery, the conflict destroyed much of what little infrastructure Jonglei possessed, including its schools. When relative peace was restored to the portions of Jonglei where the PESS schools serve children, Daniel was one of the earliest returnees. Amazingly, he found that all four school sponsored by PESS were still standing. Through the efforts of Daniel, the head masters and teachers, all but one of these schools, which served over 3000 students before the conflict, has been reopened.
In June of this year, when Carol Rinehart took her well-deserved retirement, Daniel became the new Executive Director of PESS. He continues to work on the ground in Jonglei, with the support of a Denver Board of Directors.
The PESS vision – of partnership with remote South Sudanese villages to provide desperately needed schools – continues to expand. It is abundantly clear that, unless the South Sudanese people themselves are empowered to control their own lives, they will continue to be at the mercy of catastrophic political events. PESS is thus entering a new phase where it emphasizes indigenous leadership development and girls’ empowerment, in addition to its educational mission.
We believe that PESS, led by a former Lost Boy willing to return to his native land after education and training in the United States, is in a unique position to partner with the South Sudanese to make the world’s newest country a success.