Eight years ago, Atong Akoi Akom (’24, South Sudan) left home. She was one of the nearly two million people who fled South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, when armed conflict broke out in late 2013.
Leaving home is never easy. Fleeing a violent country is a heartbreaking act of courageous survival, and seeking refuge elsewhere involves constant sacrifice. Atong was merely a child when she and her family walked for days – silently and with empty stomachs – to cross the border into Kenya and petition for asylum.
A few weeks ago, she crossed borders again. This time by plane – from Nairobi to Istanbul, then to Bogotá, then to Panama City, and finally to San José. After three full days of travel, Atong arrived in Costa Rica, ready to begin a four-year adventure at EARTH University that will shape her into a well-rounded, scientific professional and an exemplary global citizen. As a young refugee, she has witnessed several inhumane acts; yet she has also witnessed the empathetic generosity of others, people who have extended a significant, helping hand.
Those contrasting experiences drive her to improve the living conditions of others, especially her fellow South Sudanese refugees.
“Although many believed that I – as a woman and a refugee – stood no chance or should accept a more traditional role, I was determined to continue studying. That’s how I found an advertisement about EARTH,” Atong says. “When I was admitted, the Mastercard Foundation awarded me a full scholarship, which eliminated the barriers I had in my way. Winning this scholarship will allow me to help others in the community I come from. I will have the tools to help other students reach their goals, just as so many people have helped me reach mine.”
Even before fleeing her country, Atong’s life was complicated. Her father had been abducted by the army and never returned home. When her mother was forcibly remarried to a different man, Atong and her younger sister had to move in with an aunt who, with lots of love, took care of them since then. Even so, the relationship with their mother remains close.
After arriving in Kenya after a perilous journey, Atong settled in Kakuma Refugee Camp, which hosts people from more than 10 countries – all displaced because of war, violence, persecution, hunger, or the effects of climate change.
Life in Kakuma is challenging, especially for a young woman with a dream. According to Atong, schools at the camp often exceed 100 pupils per teacher. Overcrowding complicates the health and social life of all inhabitants, too – especially during a global pandemic. Basic resources such as water, food, and electricity are limited. In an attempt to alleviate some of these problems, Atong collaborated with other young people in her community to create Vijana Twaweza Club, an initiative that advances food security and sustainability.
“As part of the project, we have a small piece of land where we plant different crops and a space for fishing. I’m one of the few girls who goes into the water,” Atong adds with a laugh. “We sell part of our harvest and catch to buy what we need for the following month, such as seeds and tools. Another part of it is given to the elderly in the community. The remainder we split among the project members.”
Because of Atong’s dedication to her studies, she was selected to attend Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls, a special institution for the most academically promising young women at Kakuma – a camp where less than 5 percent of refugee girls continue past primary school. That opportunity enabled her to dream even bigger.
“I have so many dreams,” Atong beams. “To maintain a healthy body that allows me to experience all the good things in life and work hard to achieve all my goals. To be a person who can adapt and fit into any kind of society, the kind of person the world needs. To always have mentors to guide me and nurture me with knowledge. To be able to take my family forward and be a breadwinner for them, so they never lack anything. To be strong and vulnerable, able to face any challenge and put smiles on the faces of others.”
About 180,000 people live in Kakuma, 75% of whom are under the age of 25. It is essential that young women, like Atong, have opportunities to emerge, to grow, to uplift. She will change her own life and the lives of many in her community, thanks to the tools, relationships, and knowledge she will gain at EARTH.
Welcome to your new home, Atong!
You already make us proud!