His Gift Changes Lives

Published December 16, 2009
OP-OD Columnist
Published: December 16, 2009

Here’s a story for the holiday season. A 30-year-old former refugee is putting together a most extraordinary Christmas present — the first high school his community has ever had.

Valentino Deng, 30, is the central figure in the masterful 2006 best seller, “What Is the What,” by Dave Eggers. The book records Valentino’s life after the Sudanese civil war strikes his remote town in South Sudan. His friends were shot around him. He lost contact with his family, and he became one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. Fleeing government soldiers, dodging land mines, eating leaves and animal carcasses, Valentino saw boys around him carried off and devoured by lions.

At one point, Valentino and other refugees were attacked by soldiers beside a crocodile-infested river. He swam to safety through water bloodied as some swimmers were shot and others were snatched by crocodiles.

Valentino learned to read and write at makeshift schools in refugee camps by writing letters in the dust with his finger. Improbably, he turned out to be a brilliant student with a cheerful, upbeat personality. And in 2001, the United States accepted him as a refugee.

Valentino had earned the right to take it easy for the next 600 years; instead, he sets an astonishing example of resilience, compassion and charity. He and Eggers channel every penny made from “What Is the What” to a new foundation dedicated to building a high school in his hometown in Sudan.

That’s what I find so inspiring about Valentino. For a quarter-century, world leaders have averted their eyes from horrors in Sudan — first the north-south civil war that killed two million people (more than died in all the wars in America’s history), then the genocide in Darfur and now the growing risk of another civil war. In that vacuum, moral leadership has come instead from university students and refugees like Valentino.

Now Valentino’s school is beginning to operate in the town of Marial Bai — a modern high school serving students from thousands of square miles. It had a soft opening earlier this year with 100 students, and he is hoping to increase to 450 students in the coming months — but that means dizzying challenges.

“I want to enroll more than 50 percent girls,” Valentino said. “But to do that, I have to house them, because families will not allow a girl to go far away to school without a place to stay.

“For now, I’ve enrolled 14 girls,” he added. “But they go home, and then they have to take care of siblings, collect firewood, fetch water. So I’m worried about how much they can learn.” In addition, a high school girl can fetch a huge bride price — about 100 cows — and Valentino thinks the best way to avoid early marriage and give the girls a chance to study is for them to live in a dormitory on the school grounds.

Decades of civil war have left South Sudan one of the poorest places on Earth, where a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than to be literate. In recent years, only about 500 girls have graduated annually from elementary school in South Sudan — out of a total population of eight million.

Valentino’s every step has been Herculean. Building supplies had to be trucked in from Uganda through a jungle where a brutal militia called the Lord’s Resistance Army murders, rapes and loots. There is no electricity or running water in Marial Bai, so the high school’s computers will have to run on solar power. When a microscope arrived the other day, a science teacher was overcome. He had never actually touched one.

The school has a certain American ethos. Valentino is requiring students to engage in service activities, such as building huts for displaced people. “We focus on leadership,” he explained.

Eight high school teachers from the United States, Canada and New Zealand traveled at their own expense to Valentino’s school last summer to train teachers and work with students. They raved to me about how eager the students are to learn; some students burst into tears when the volunteers had to leave.

“What he’s accomplished in his hometown is astounding,” Eggers said. “A 14-structure educational complex built from scratch in one year. It boggles the mind.

“He’s succeeded where countless NGOs stumble, mainly because he knows the local business climate and can negotiate reasonable local prices for materials,” he added, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

Valentino is still fund-raising and looking for volunteer teachers. He needs $15,000 to finish a dormitory for girls, and much more to dig wells and operate the school for the first three years. (More information about the school is at www.valentinoachakdeng.org.) But he’s relentless.

“I’m the lucky one,” Valentino told me. “I must be the one who will make a difference.”

What a perfect sentiment for these holidays.

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