A school in the remote village of Ariang, in what is now the Republic of South Sudan, once existed only in the imagination of Gabriel Bol Deng ’07, M.S.Ed. '12. Deng was a child when civil war forced him to flee his home, alone and on foot, nearly 30 years ago. Following stays in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, he immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 and, after earning a GED and an associate degree in mathematics and sciences from Onondaga Community College, he enrolled at Le Moyne in 2004. During his time on the Heights, Deng worked toward a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (with a minor in mathematics and a concentration in education) and a master's degree in education. HE also founded a nonprofit organization, Helping Offer Primary Education (HOPE) for Ariang. His aim was to become a teacher and to use his education to give back to the people of his village by providing them with a school of their own.
Today that school, which has been featured in previous issues of Le Moyne College Magazine, is in its third year of operation. Every weekday nearly 600 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, who had previously been taught outside under the shade of a tree, learn in classrooms that are safe and well equipped. As word of the school has spread, it has drawn children not just from Ariang, but also from several surrounding villages, with more than a fifth of the students walking for two hours to attend classes. And since the Republic of South Sudan was formed the same year that school opened, the teachers, who now number 24, have been trained to teach in the new nation’s official language – English. (Deng himself speaks two languages in addition to English and his native Dinka – Swahili and Arabic.).
“These students have the will. They are driven to get an education,” Deng said following a recent visit to South Sudan, during which he spent a full week working at the school. “For me, that is the biggest reward – seeing the kids smiling. It makes me feel like I am making a difference because our efforts are giving these children hope for a better future. I want them to use their educations to develop themselves and their communities. A young nation needs educated citizens to make good decisions in building an inclusive, democratic and equitable South Sudanese society.”.
According to the Republic of South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, 51 percent of the nation’s 8.26 million people are under the age of 18 and the same percentage lives below the poverty line. The vast majority – 78 percent – depend upon farming as their primary source of livelihood. The nation’s future is dependent upon strengthening its educational system –including increasing the adult literacy rate, which currently stands at 27 percent – and that serves to motivate everyone at HOPE..
Deng’s immediate plans, though, go beyond educating students. He is currently working to improve the lunch program at the school as a drought followed by devastating floods destroyed much of the nation’s recent harvest, directly impacting many of the student’s families. In the midst of political unrest, United Nations officials have warned that close to one-third of South Sudan’s population is at risk of starvation. For many of the children at the school, a lunch provided there could be the only meal they have each day. Deng’s long-terms plans are to establish a farm on the school grounds, complete with heavy equipment and an irrigation system, to significantly increase crop yield. The farm would feed students and serve as a teaching tool..
Beyond that, Deng also hopes to build a library for the school..
In order to raise funds for those projects, HOPE has partnered with local schools, including Christian Brothers Academy and Westhill High School, as well as with Dune Jewelry, which has created a series of pieces called the Hope Collection. Proceeds from the sale of the pieces, which are made from actual bricks from the school, support the construction and maintenance of educational facilities and programs in Ariang..
In the face of numerous challenges, a particular source of pride for Deng and everyone at HOPE is that, for the first time, many girls in Ariang and surrounding villages have the opportunity for a formal education. The school also recently hired its first female teacher. Barron Boyd, Ph.D., the former director of peace and global studies at Le Moyne and a key player in the establishment of the Ariand school, said that making education available to both boys and girls was part of Deng’s vision from the beginning. .
“From the outset Gabe realized that educating girls was not a luxury but a necessity because it changes everything,” he said. “Standards of living go up, infant mortality goes down, the incidence of malaria and dysenteric disease drops and life generally improves, radically.”.
The idea for HOPE was born on the Le Moyne campus, and the College maintains a close connection to the organization. In addition the faculty members in the Department of Education have been strong supporters of this school since its inception, helping Deng achieve his goal of becoming a teacher, engaging the Le Moyne community in raising funds for the school, and preparing education students to develop culturally relevant methods of instruction. Three education faculty members also serve on HOPE’s board of directors. In addition, students in the Madden School of Business have studied the school as a model of social entrepreneurship and communication students became involved in marketing HOPE. .
Among the people who have worked with Deng is Sharon (Kinsman) Salmon ’78, the chair of the College’s board of trustees. She met the Le Moyne alumnus several years ago when he spoke on campus and recalls thinking to herself at the time, “I have to find a way to help him.” Since then, she has been able to connect Deng to several people in her community in New Jersey and to introduce him when he has spoken to students at schools in that area..
“Knowing Gabriel’s incredible and horrendous story of survival, and then seeing what he has become and the fact that he is devoting his life to help others is a constant inspiration,” she said. “I hope that he is able to reach his current goal of making his first school self-sustaining so that he can expand and build more schools so that a whole new generation of young people will have a brighter future.”