First Sudanese lost girl graduates from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the USA. Dr. Laura Deluca, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Leah Bassoff have this inspiring story
Dr. Laura Deluca and Leah Bassoff, The New Sudan Vision (NSV), www.newsudanvision.com
Micklina Peter Kenyi and her mom in this picture following her graduation. She reunited with her mom after years of separation
May 11, 2008 (Boulder, Colorado) - Micklina Peter Kenyi says that her mother was the one who encouraged her to get an education. Mama Rose always said, "I missed my chance to go to school. Don't be like me." Kenyi took her mother's words to heart. She is part of the group of refugees known as the Lost Girls of Sudan, girls who have spent more time in refugee camps than in their home communities. After years of enduring heat, dust, and minimal food rations in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp, Kenyi eventually escaped to Sister Luise Radlmeier's Nairobi-area compound where she convinced the German Catholic nun that she had to get an education.
Never, in Kenyi's wildest dreams, could she imagine ending up in Boulder, Colorado and being the first of the Lost Girls to graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Not only does she graduate on Friday, May 9th, but she does so with honors. In fact, Kenyi is invited to sit with the graduation "platform party,”a select group of less than 50 people including the chancellor, university president, numerous deans and a small number of student leaders who sit facing the crowd on a raised platform in the front of 22,000 guests during graduation. Kenyi is the special guest of Anne Heinz, Dean of Continuing Education and Professional Studies. Heinz became quite taken with Kenyi. She says, "When I met Micklina she told me [her] story of reuniting with her mother. It's remarkable what she's been able to achieve given all that she's been through. I appreciate her commitment to her people as well as her passion for education. Micklina is just an amazing woman."
It is 8:30 AM on a crisp 62 degree morning in CU-Boulder's Folsom stadium. Within the first 10 minutes of the graduation ceremony, James F. Williams II, Dean of Libraries and the Commencement Marshall, introduces Kenyi by saying, "It is my great pleasure to welcome Dean Heinz's guest, Micklina Peter Kenyi, a woman graduating today who has overcome great obstacles in her life to reach her goals. Separated from her family as a young girl, Micklina survived refugee camps and managed to escape from war-torn Sudan . We celebrated the graduation of the first 'Lost Boys from Sudan' not long ago. Now, Micklina becomes the first female Sudanese refugee, or 'Lost Girl from Sudan,' to graduate from CU-Boulder. Congratulations to you, Micklina."
As soon as Dean Williams announces Kenyi, several Sudanese female guests made a long, wavering, high-pitched sound "Ayah, yah, yah, yah,yah, yah, yiiiiiiii" to express their joy. A few surprised members of Colorado's class of 1958, sitting in front of the Sudanese guests--turn around to listen to this new cheer. In a separate display of pride, Dominic Lomilo Raimondo clasps his hands together to form a "hand flute" and plays a tune. "This is a traditional Sudanese way of encouraging someone, expressing excitement and praising bravery," says Dominic, who traveled nearly 600 miles by car from Salt Lake City, Utah to attend Micklina's graduation in Boulder, Colorado. "It has to be in you," says Dominic of the desire to play hand flute, "you cannot just practice it." In Eastern Equatoria, where Micklina and Dominic grew up, there were no flutes or other wind instruments. "In Lauro Village (near Chukudum), when we wanted to praise someone we would interlace our fingers, clasp our hands together and blow air through their thumbs literally fashioning a flute out of our own hands," explains Dominic.
After the formal graduation, Sudanese and American guests celebrate in a church basement in downtown Boulder. For dinner everyone eats collard greens, fruit salad, casseroles, beef, grilled chicken, and white cake with gold and black icing, but first there is Sudanese dancing. Dressed in beaded cowhide skirts, brightly colored tank tops and feather headdresses with white circles painted on their arms, the Sudanese youth dance like art-in-motion. By applying courting songs, war songs, and praise songs to a college graduation celebration, the youth create a brand new tradition.
Audience member, William Nyangamoi, explains that the dance in which young girls flail their bodies against the boys is called ichayok muckuhurita and jore ci anyanya and is a type of war dance. Nyangamoi traveled 10 hours by car to the Colorado graduation from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He tells me that Kenyi's mom is his mother's youngest sister, making him one of many cousins in attendance. Sudanese relatives and friends have traveled from as far away as the UK where Hakim, William Nyangamoi's brother lives and Melbourne, Australia where Andrew Mario lives. Mario says the last time he saw Kenyi was in Torit 12 years ago.
All of these guests have traveled from far and wide to celebrate Kenyi's remarkable achievement. In Southern Sudan, women are rarely encouraged to speak up, but at the University of Cololorado at Boulder, where Kenyi found herself taking classes in both politics and women's studies, she wrote and spoke about issues such as domestic violence and women's oppression.
Lindsay Eppich, a University of Colorado student and a friend of Kenyi, describes her unwavering desire to learn. "Micklina is in a class of five hundred students with maybe three African-Americans. She sits right in the middle. She never misses a class. She is always front and center. I know that she has a thousand other things on her plate, but she is there for school.She inspires me everyday."
According to Nancy Billica, Political Science lecturer at the University of Colorado, Kenyi was a vibrant presence in her class. In Fall 2006, Kenyi enrolled in one of Dr. Billica's courses that focused on the U.S. Congress. One focal point of this class was a very intense congressional simulation involving committee hearings and floor debate. Kenyi played the role of a lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) testifying before the House Transportation Committee that there should be a change in blood alcohol limits for drivers. She was passionate as she defended her position in front of a tough crowd of student legislators. Billica uses this as an example of how, "Micklina takes her academic work seriously. As a student she's always been an active participant in classroom discussions."
In order to be a successful student, Kenyi has had to balance the stress of school with all of her other activities: working, helping other Sudanese refugees, speaking publicly to raise awareness, and founding CSAW (Community of Sudanese and American Women and Men). CSAW represents Micklina's dream of uniting women from all over Southern Sudan, and with the help of the Colorado community, empowering them to pursue further education and achieve their future dreams.
College hasn't always been easy for Kenyi. Sitting in class, surrounded by American students, she often feels torn between two worlds. Like many Sudanese refugees who come to America, Kenyi's phone rings any time of the night with someone from Southern Sudan calling for help. She explains, "You have the stress of school, work, bills, and the other stress is when people call from Africa. I feel so guilty when someone is in need, and I cannot give." Psychiatrist Jed Shapiro refers to this phenomenon as survivor's guilt, a term first used to describe Holocaust survivors but that can also be applied to victims of war. There is often guilt at having survived when others are still suffering. One of the ways Kenyi copes is by doing everything she can to give back to her community. Though she has learned a lot about freedom from American women, and though she questions those Sudanese traditions that subjugate women, she loves her cultural heritage and says, "I will keep everything I can remember about my culture alive."
Many of her fellow students have no knowledge of Kenyi's past experiences as a refugee. She says, "Sometimes I share with [other students] and you see them thinking and they're really sorry. All [their knowledge comes from] when they're asked to do research, but they've never really witnessed something like [my situation]. Most of the students never really know where I came from or why I'm here."
Kenyi says she never judges harshly those students who don't have to work as hard as she does. She explains, "My friends will say, 'Just don't worry. Don't think about it. Just relax.' Of course most of them don't work. Their tuitions have been paid for by their parents. They may work, but it is for money to enjoy, buy beer, smoke or hang out with friends.But if they are enjoying, maybe that is what God wants them to do. For me, I will suffer, but then my kids will enjoy one day, or maybe when I finish and I get to be who I want, I will enjoy."
Kenyi represents the future hope for Southern Sudan in that she wants to encourage women to take on leadership roles. She tells women, "One hand cannot clap alone," meaning that all women must unite in order to speak up against violence in Southern Sudan. As the selected student commencement speaker for the Women and Gender Studies Program on May 8th, Kenyi opposes the violence that exists in her home country.
Speaking to an audience of several hundred at the University of Colorado's historic Old Main Building, Kenyi shared her dream of promoting gender equality. She recalled the story of a girl in her village who was thirteen when she was given away for marriage. Kenyi remembers the girl saying "Daddy, Daddy, this can't be." She also remembers him ignoring her pleas and forcing her to marry a man three times her age. This same girl went on to die in childbirth at age 14. Kenyi describes the anger she felt at this young girl's hopeless situation and how it made her realize the importance of getting an education. "I thought that one day if I become president of Sudan, I would prove to my countrymen that girls could not be ignored," she explains.
Julia Aker Duany, undersecretary for the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs in the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), says that women like Kenyi can contribute to Sudan's future success. "Once they acquire a skill, the Lost Girls will be in a position to assist those in Sudan who are rebuilding the government from the bottom up." Capacity building is a big focus for Sudan right now and Kenyi's capacity to contribute to positive solutions increases with her bachelor's degree training.
Her drive to pursue education, in addition to her faith, is what keeps Kenyi going, even through tough times. She encourages all of the Southern Sudanese young women who come to Colorado to pursue their dreams. Each Southern Sudanese who graduates from college (there are several young men who are also graduating) benefits his community, but Micklina is unique in that she is paving the path for a whole group of young women to find their voices and become the future of Southern Sudan.