Rising senior’s initiatives promote conflict resolution in South Sudan

After decades of conflict, the central African state of South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. However, in the years that have followed, the fledgling nation has contended with rebel militia groups, the difficulties of nation-building, and deteriorating economic conditions, all of which have contributed to a growing humanitarian crisis.

The Irish Rover recently spoke with Ngor Majak Anyieth, a rising Notre Dame senior and the founder of the non-profit organization, Education Bridge, about his efforts to bring peace, reconciliation, and education to his home country.

Rover: What is Education Bridge, and how do you carry out your mission?

Anyieth: Education Bridge is a non-profit started two years ago, and the mission is to promote peace and education in South Sudan. We work with high school students to teach them nonviolent conflict resolution and things like teamwork, negotiation, and other social entrepreneurship sills.

Right now, we are building a secondary school in Bor in Jonglei State. The school is in the construction process and it’s going to open in January 2017. We will be serving students from five different communities.

Rover: You mentioned that one of your goals is to promote conflict resolution. How will the school contribute to that goal?

Anyieth: In addition to providing basic secondary education, we’re also hoping to promote peace by bringing together students from five different communities. We have a curriculum for nonviolent conflict resolution that we designed last semester here at Notre Dame with the help of some professors. We’re going to use it with the students with the hope of creating ambassadors that can go back to their communities.

The goal of the program, really, is to break down stereotypes and show the human side of every communityor, at least, that we all need the same things, and we should focus more on those similarities.   

Rover: Could you tell us more about the situation in South Sudan that has necessitated programs like Education Bridge?

Anyieth: In South Sudan, education is in terrible shape. We have the lowest literacy level in the world27% for boys and for girls less than 16%. Because of that, most people don’t have any jobs or any skills. They are involved in a lot of criminal activity sometimes.

 This is the case because South Sudan was at warcivil warfrom 1983 to 2005. That created a lot of issues, and that is why education is really low. We still don’t have anything now, any infrastructure. But we became independent in July 2011. The peace was signed in 2005, and in 2011 the south was given a choice through a referendum, in which it decided to become independent. We became a new country in July 2011, and things were good, but there was a lot of contention, too. We had leadership issuesthat may be contentious to say, but we did. In 2014 there was a big crisis that blew up and it became a sort of civil war.

Between December 2013 and the present, 2.5 million people have been displaced in the country and thousands of people have been killed. In October of last year, though, they signed a peace agreement, so we are on track to bringing peace back, but there are many people still in the refugee and IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps.

Rover: As a native of South Sudan, how did your experiences inspire you to found Education Bridge?  

Anyieth: I came to Notre Dame for school, but my family is in South Sudan. I started Education Bridge because, partly, growing up I had a lot of problems getting education myself. I didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities. I had to leave South Sudan in 2005 and left my family in South Sudan and went to Kenya, where I lived in a refugee camp for six years to go to school.

Knowing the importance of education, knowing the struggle that I had to go through, and then going back to South Sudan and seeing that things had not changed, that pushed me to say, “What can I do? How can I help?” Conflict in 2014 destroyed a lot of schools there and 2.5 million people were displaced. I went back in the summer of 2014 and I visited different IDP camps. Education was one of the biggest needs, so the idea of building a school came out of that reflection. We wanted to build a school in an IDP camp, but after talking to some of the leaders, we decided to build it in a more stable place.

Rover: Where did your ideas for a conflict resolution program come from?

Anyieth: The peace aspect of the school came from my experience in the refugee camp. Growing up in my community, I had the experienceI think it can be the same in the U.S.where other communities are sometimes portrayed negatively. But then I went to Kenya and I lived with people from everywhere. In the refugee camp, you get food from the UN, and all sorts of people are therepeople from other communities that I had been told were not good. But I was living with them, I was going to school with them. You come to have friends and you realize, “The dominant narrative that I was told was not true.” You start questioning what you’ve been told.

Our hope is to do something similar in our schools, to have people from different tribes come together, learn together. They will be receiving education, which they need, but also they will be building bridges between their communities and trying to create a new understanding, a more peaceful one.

Rover: How can people outside of Education Bridge help? How can they get involved?

Anyieth: I think one thing is the human resourceswe need the people. And then there are, of course, the financial resources. Right now we have a lot of people on my team back in South Sudan and at Notre Dame who have been giving me advice. Our biggest problem is just getting the money to do the projects we are doing. At our school right now, we are finishing constructing the parts for classrooms. Over the summer, I’m going to be going back to South Sudan, and I’ll be doing a teacher training. I won’t be training the teachers, but I’ll be organizing the trainings and finding people to help me do that.  

Rover: Do you foresee expanding the program to more schools in South Sudan?

Anyieth: We’ll see how the first school works out. We’re putting all our energies into this now to see [whether] we can actually execute the programs. If that produces the result we want to see, we might move forward with other schools. South Sudan needs education; if you build a school, you’ll find students. But because we are not just building a school, we are trying to bring an agenda of peace and community reconciliation, we need to focus on executing that in our current school now, and based on the outcome we’ll decide if we can expand or not. I have a lot of experience working in Bor, but it would be a different experience working with people from other communities.

Rover: How do you think the mission of Education Bridge is relevant here at Notre Dame? How did your goals for education in South Sudan influence your decision to attend ND?

Anyieth: One of the biggest reasons I came to Notre Dame was because I read about the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program and people interested in social justice. Currently, we’re very fortunate to have Professor Steve Reifenberg, the executive director of the Kellogg Institute, and Professor Richard Klee, an instructor and doctoral candidate in theology, on our board of advisors. I’m not Catholic, but I was attracted to the values of charity, compassion, and community work. And being part of the Notre Dame community has helped to inspire me to do this work, especially seeing so many people concerned about social justice. That spirit is the same spirit that I’m trying to embody in my work in my community in South Sudan, and I’m hoping that the Notre Dame community will help out in any way possible.     

Nicole O’Leary is a rising junior living in McGlinn Hall and studying theology and history. Contact her at noleary@nd.edu.