Sitting in a friend’s cluttered university office and drinking a cup of instant coffee, Makwei Deng insisted he has not been in the United States for a full four years.
“Thirteen days before it becomes four years," he said, laughing.
During the time he has been in the United States, Deng has earned a college degree in economics and philosophy at George Washington University (GW) in Washington, DC. That course of study was not exactly what Deng had in mind when he applied for a Banaa ("to build or to create" in Arabic) scholarship from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
"I thought I was coming to law school," Deng said. He explained that students at the Kakuma refugee camp follow the British education system, in which students pursue professional degrees immediately following high school.
But once in the United States, Deng said that he was told he had to get an undergraduate degree in "four good years."
He added, "It’s still my goal, if possible, I still want to go to law school.”
While at GW, Deng also started a blog about South Sudan. He said people at the embassy and in NGOs around town know him because of his blog – especially because of an article he wrote about what he called “the top 13 corrupt government officials in South Sudan.”
Deng said he is not afraid to speak up in part because he wants to start having a voice even now, when he is only in his mid-twenties. His inspiration, he said, was the young people who arranged the money and support for him to study in the United States in the first place.
Deng said, “When I came I thought that I was going to meet these rich, older, wiser people with pot bellies. But when I met them at the airport they were wearing shorts, funny t-shirts, and they were young, some were even younger than me. But already this is what they’ve done.”
Since that day, a lot has changed for those young people, too.
Evan Faber, a co-founder and acting director of Banaa who is also in his mid-twenties, said that in the last three years, the group has brought two other students – one from Sudan's Darfur region and one from the Nuba Mountains – to study at other U.S. universities.
“What we wanted to accomplish was to have a student come here and be able to share with us their experience[s] and share their perspective[s] and be able to use the opportunities you have here in the United States, at GW, the University of Rochester, universities here in the U.S., make really good contacts, and bring those contacts back home," Faber said.
As the first Banaa scholar, Makwei Deng is now fulfilling the second part of Banaa’s vision by returning to South Sudan — a country that didn’t exist when Deng came to the United States.
“When I came here it was very confusing because this was a new country [to me]. People were strange, the culture was strange. Everything was unreal. It will appear I’ll be experiencing the same thing when I’m back in Juba," he said.
Deng isn’t even sure yet who is meeting his plane in Juba, or where he’s going to live. But he said he would like to start making a difference in his country as soon as possible.
“I am seeing myself as part of that generation that took over from people that were fighting using guns, and now [we are] fighting using ideas, using development, using peace to bring about a new, better country.”
When Evan Faber heard Deng say that, he beamed.
“Makwei’s perspective is what we were hoping would be the result of the Banaa Scholarship," Faber said. "I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Then, both wearing suits that were much too big for them, Faber and Deng move to an upstairs reception hall at GW for one last celebration before Deng begins his next journey — a journey home.