South Sudan, the world's newest country, faces a long journey of nation-building ahead, and in spite of a recent cease fire agreement, ethnic fighting within the country continues. With over four million displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), the South Sudanese diaspora continues to be large in spite of at least 2.5 million South Sudanese having returned since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Outside of Africa, the largest diaspora communities are in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand where there are an estimated 400,000-600,000 South Sudanese, representing approximately five percent of the total population of South Sudan in 2012.
Given the need and the size of the diaspora, it isn't surprising that South Sudanese refugees are assisting in the development of their diaspora communities as well as the Republic of South Sudan. Members of the diaspora were instrumental in realizing the referendum that established an independent South Sudan in 2011, and were able to vote in it from abroad. Some individuals in the diaspora are also choosing to return to South Sudan, to put to use skills acquired in their countries of resettlement to launch small-scale philanthropic projects in and around their home villages.
In 1997, Tor Mach Kuet was looking to make a move from Minnesota where he was having trouble making the transition from refugee camp to fast-paced American life. Kuet ultimately settled in Omaha, Nebraska, a town with a low cost of living, an accessible entry level to employment, and a long history of welcoming refugees. There Kuet co-founded the Southern Sudan Community Association (SSCA Omaha), an aid and advocacy agency whose slogan proudly became "By Refugees, For Refugees." Initially designed to support refugees from Southern Sudan resettling in Omaha, SSCA achieved such success that it expanded its mission of resettlement to assist refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, the Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Liberia, and Somalia.
SSCA Omaha still serves as an important gathering place for the significant South Sudanese community in Omaha, which is the largest outside of Africa (approximately 7,000, representing 1.7 percent of the total population of Omaha). In early January, during a meeting about acquiring U.S. citizenship, a group of South Sudanese elders made up of Dinka, Nuer, and other ethnic groups voiced the need to discuss the ongoing ethnic violence in South Sudan. According to SSCA Omaha's current executive director, Ann Marie Kudlacz, there were high emotions and intense political opinions at first, but the assembled elders ultimately denounced the violence with a unified South Sudanese-American voice. They affirmed, regardless of their ethnic identity, their commitment to helping each other despite the ongoing conflicts back home. Such bridges of dialogue are exactly what Tor Mach Kuet hoped for when he started the organization almost two decades ago.
Kuet took the expertise he gained from SSCA Omaha and moved back to South Sudan in 2005. His philanthropic efforts now extend to running an orphanage, ensuring water sanitation in villages, and supporting several other infrastructure projects within South Sudan. Kuet still visits SSCA Omaha every few years to steward the agency's commitment to assisting all refugees, no matter their ethnicity or country of origin.
Valentino Achak Deng, another refugee from South Sudan, gained national attention after the 2006 release of Dave Eggers' New York Time's Bestseller biographical novel What Is the What. The novel told of Deng's long and perilous journey on foot from his home in Marial Bai to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya and ultimately to the United States. Building on the momentum of that book, Deng launched the Valentino Achak Deng (VAD) Foundation to empower war-affected South Sudanese populations through education. An advocate for the universal right to education, Deng spends most of his time marshaling resources to tackle the educational disparity for girls in South Sudan, home to one of the world's lowest literacy rates. According to the government's own estimates, 92% of women in South Sudan are illiterate and less than 1% of girls graduate from high school. There is a greater likelihood for girls in South Sudan to die in pregnancy or childbirth than to even reach secondary school.
With a vision of creating a secondary school in Marial Bai for both boys and girls, Deng approached his long-time friend and collaborator, Dave Eggers, for help. Eggers enlisted a Bay Area architectural firm to design the school, but when he arrived in Marial Bai with the plans he learned that the required materials were not available. And when materials were available, they were not affordable. Moreover, local workers did not possess the skills to execute the plans. Undaunted, Eggers volunteered to design the interior of the school's library, assuming that such a project would be appropriate given his considerable knowledge of books. However, local residents patiently explained that termites would first eat the inset wooden shelves before proceeding to eat all the books. Ultimately, Eggers relinquished construction duties to Deng, who worked with a local architect to build the secondary school in six months with local materials and no plans.
Eggers used the lessons he learned from this experience to call for support of such diaspora-led initiatives when he appeared with Deng at the Clinton Global Initiative Summit of 2011:
"I learned that...I am most useful as a supporter, fundraiser, and cheerleader for Valentino, his staff, and faculty on the ground. They know what they're doing. Small projects like Valentino's are one of the key ways the new nation of South Sudan will move forward. Small projects like his are nimble, adaptable, and they can have immediate impact. And they need support. There are thousands of other young men and women of the so-called Lost Boys and Girls generation and an astoundingly large percentage of them are trying to improve conditions in South Sudan. These young men and women were educated in the U.S. and Canada and Australia and are now spearheading progress in their new nation. These projects, though, because of their small size, often go unnoticed and unfunded, even though they are the most likely to have immediate impact and be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions in the new nation of South Sudan."
With threats of violence still looming, philanthropic projects like Deng's and Kuet's—small, nimble, adaptable, and with immediate impact—will be key to the rebuilding process in South Sudan. "And," as Eggers reminds us, "they need support."