Gabriel Akech Kwai was 7 years old when his father was murdered in Northern Sudan. His home country was then divided during a civil war that eventually forced him to travel with the 33,000 other Lost Boys of Sudan to Ethiopia and later to a Kenyan refugee camp.
Kwai, who has lived in the United States for six years, considers himself lucky. So lucky that Kwai has established Women’s Educational Empowerment Project for Southern Sudan to help educate and empower women, bringing the educational gap that exists in the northern and southern regions of his homeland.
“This is where my dreams lie,” Kwai, a Murray State senior, said in a recent interview with the Ledger & Times. “… I learned that children learn a lot from their mothers, and if we educate the women of Sudan, then we help her entire family.”
Born in 1979 in Bor, Kwai was the last born in his family, which included his father and his eight wives as well as their children. Then as a civil war ripped his country and family apart, Kwai walked with the group of parentless boys from Sudan to Ethiopia, where life was particularly difficult the first few months without food until the United Nations provided some relief.
Kwai lived in Ethiopia from 1987 until 1991, when that government ordered the refugees to leave the country within 24 hours. Kwai recalled the devastation of the journey to come: While seeking shelter in Kenya, Ethiopian militias attacked the young refugees, killing 5,000 of them in one day.
“I was one of the luckiest who crossed the border,” said Kwai, who will graduate from Murray State in December with a bachelors degree in finance.
Kwai spent the next nine years at the Kenyan refugee camp that became his home. There he received his elementary and high school education.
And in 1997 he received hope. United States officials visited the camp and listened to the many issues the Lost Boys shared. That began the long process that led to 4,000 of the boys being able to settle in the United States in 2001.
Kwai came to Louisville, where he worked and then went to Jefferson Community College. After two years there, he enrolled at Murray State, where he has continued working toward his finance degree.
But he’ll graduate in December with more than a degree. During his time in the U.S., he gained vision for how to help his homeland. That’s why in February he started Women’s Educational Empowerment Project for Southern Sudan.
“When I came to America, I worked in different places and learned about American culture,” Kwai said. “One thing I learned is that when we support another part of the world, places can change.
“I learned about women in the different workplaces. I had some women as supervisors and they were doing great things. They were contributing to the economy. I realized women in Sudan could get an education and help the country.”
Kwai was able to see his mother for the first time in two decades last year.
“She is really happy about WEEP,” Kwai said. “She was not educated. My dad was the only educated person. When my dad died, all of us suffered.”
The short-term goals are to sponsor 10 young women to attend high school in surrounding countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, and broaden the support network for the nonprofit project. Later, Kwai hopes WEEP can build schools in Southern Sudan and empower women.
Men and women in Northern Sudan have 71 percent and 52 percent literacy rates, respectively, while the literacy rate among men is 37 percent and far less at 12 percent for women in Southern Sudan, according to information from the United Nations Population Fund.
“Narrowing this educational gap could raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutritional status and health, reduce poverty and reduce HIV/AIDS outbreaks,” Kwai’s project’s promotional brochure reads.
“I’m getting a lot of positive response from the churches and people I’ve talked to,” he said in a recent interview. “They are willing to think about it and they really want to support us.”
Right now, he’s concentrating on gaining assistance in western Kentucky, but he’s also maintained support in Louisville.
In July, Kwai traveled to California to talk to the NAACP, which plans to sponsor one girl next year and made a donation. Besides getting established, Kwai and the six other Murray State students who have been helping him are planning a mission trip for a few months next year to see the conditions in Southern Sudan.
“All of them are willing to help me out,” Kwai said of the six American students working with WEEP. “In every meeting we conduct, there are things I need to get done and they are quick to do them.”
– Associated Press
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