Challenges Facing Students in Darfur: Banaa as a Ray of Hope

I originally got involved with Banaa after tutoring a Darfurian student and helping him apply for the scholarship. I had worked for 14 months in Darfur with a company that was building the peacekeeping camps out there.  Over the course of tutoring Mohamed, I realized how nearly impossible it would be for a Darfurian to complete an application for a US college, let alone have a decent chance of being considered.

Joseph, Mo, and Eve at U of RI met “Mo” when he carried my giant bags to my tent upon arrival, after my exhausting journey from the US.  When I met him, Mo was 18 or so working on our facilities operation and maintenance, after working his way up from being a ditch-digger at 16. He was a friendly person in a hostile environment. Mo was regularly being told he should apply to a US college since he was college age and spoke excellent English.  Except for rich Sudanese who had been to foreign schools, Mo had the best English of any Sudanese person I have ever encountered. This is doubly impressive since I had employees with Sudanese university degrees in English, who weren’t as proficient.

Tutoring was my way of trying to give something to the people of Darfur, an attempt to help at least one person. I tutored Mo whenever we had time after work.  Mo’s speaking skills had developed quickly on the job, but he had not had access to anything above what American schools would consider basic English courses in school. In retrospect, I admire Mo for hanging on, for trying to squeeze in studying after a 12-hour day, for overcoming what must have been a lot of intimidating coursework. There were times when Mo would show up for lessons when I was exhausted and had to fight the urge to cancel, reminding myself he was working twice as hard as us office workers.

I spent a lot of time trying to find a scholarship that might be a good fit for Mohamed. Over several months, I only found 2 or 3 undergraduate scholarships for Sudanese students. All of them were aimed at students from south Sudan and were designed for refugees with access to American schools, not for students actually living in Sudan. These scholarships required things like several types of standardized testing which would have been virtually impossible for anyone in Darfur to obtain without the help of a western mentor. Reasons for this include:

-Inaccessibility of either credit cards or checks

-Cost of Internet usage, test registration fees, and flights to testing centers, etc.

I figured Mo should consider taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), while I kept researching scholarships in the hope of finding a loophole or shortcut.  A few coworkers and I paid the roughly $150 US initial registration fee for the TOEFL as a gift. Mo was able to ride one of our company planes for free. It was a 4-day journey for Mo to get to the capital, take the test and return. Darfur is roughly the size of France, and Mo told us he was the only Darfurian to take the test that day.

When I found out about Banaa, it felt like a ray of hope. The Banaa program, with its lack of standardized testing requirements, and willingness to make a qualitative evaluation based on the candidate’s application was a breath of fresh air after reading about so many scholarships so out of reach. Their application seemed sane and designed to assist real people.

I was stunned when I heard Mohamed had made it to the semi-finalists of scholarship applicants. Banaa volunteers worked with him despite poor access to phone and Internet communications.  I started helping Banaa volunteers make sure Mo got whatever paperwork was needed, since I knew they had other applicants they also needed to keep track of.

I got a chance to know Evan Faber from Banaa as Mohamed’s arrival date neared. I had volunteered to help with Mohamed’s logistics since I had travelled to and from Sudan. I was incredibly surprised to realize how few staff and how little money Banaa operated on. Up until I met Evan and some of the other student volunteers, I had no idea how much heart and soul everyone was pouring into this effort. It made me want to get involved with an organization that could do so much with so little.

Sudan is only recently coming out of its troubled history and Banaa provides a way for Sudanese leaders to develop their own solutions to the challenges of their home communities. Aside from the benefit to the individual scholar, there is the knowledge and skills he or she will bring home, the other students (both US and Sudanese) he or she will inspire, and the fact that this is a narrative of hope, opportunity and planning for the future.  I hope to see Banaa grow and offer more scholarships in the US and share lessons learned with the educational and non-profit/development community. Banaa is a seedling organization helping both young leaders and Sudanese communities take root and grow.


-Eve Gray

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