At 12, he fled his small Sudanese village and the safety of his father to escape a rebel insurgency. At 13 he was a refugee, living in Cairo with his mother and two brothers. When he was 15, his travel to the United States was funded by Brooke Comer, a professor at the American University in Cairo.
Now, at 17, Nyuol Tong is a high school student in Santa Ynez about to launch a nonprofit organization to raise money for the 1.6 million Sudanese who have never had a proper education. “What’s happening in Sudan demands our attention,” said Tong. “We live in a globalized world.”
Since the mid 1950s, Sudan has been seemingly synonymous with war. Malnutrition, homelessness, poverty, and overall instability have resulted in the death of more than 2 million people. Constant political and social uprisings, and the reoccurrence of the people’s sedition have made Sudan practically unlivable. The living conditions have become so bad that the United Nations has been asked not to enter for fear of hostile violence.
“You flee Sudan for survival, not for anything else,” explained Tong.
The Sudan Education for Liberty Foundation (SELF) was just a twinkle in Tong’s eye when he started at the Dunn School, a boarding school in Santa Ynez. Kristin Martinez, one of Tong’s teachers there said she was immediately captivated by the young man’s enthusiasm. “He would come in at lunch and we would discuss the issues of the world,” said Martinez. Tong was on a mission; he wanted to alleviate the education problems in Sudan. “Education is not their priority,” Tong said, “and internationally the world is concerned with other things, like oil.”
Tong’s devotion to his cause inspired Martinez, and together they began a school organization that promoted awareness of the education crisis in Sudan. “Knowledge is the only thing that will bring self-sustainability to the people of Sudan,” Martinez said. Other students began to take notice of what Tong and Martinez were doing, and the school-wide club began to pick up steam. So the dream was born, SELF was emerging with Tong as its captain.
Eventually, SELF applied for nonprofit status. Tong began speaking at schools, churches, and community events across the nation. He spoke about the need for legitimate schools in Sudan, the lack of trained teachers, and the untapped resource of Sudanese intellect. “There is no common identity there. Nothing makes them Sudanese,” he said. The organization officially launches today, and from there Tong hopes the community, the nation, and the world will start to take notice.
As for Tong, he said he has dreams of attending college. More specifically, he wants to attend Duke as an undergrad, and then go on to Harvard for law school. He loves reading philosophy books, poetry, and simply observing the people around him. Extremely grateful and undeniably charming, he has only one thing to say to his community: “I’m talking as a human being; I’m not talking as a Sudanese, and every human being deserves an education.”
Learn more about Sudan Education for Liberty Foundation at its Web site, selfsudan.org.
CORRECTION: The original version of the story incorrectly stated that Tong’s travel to and education in America was funded by students participating in an American Amnesty Club who raised the money. This was incorrect. Brooke Comer, in fact, provided the funding.