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Unadilla Valley Students Hear South Sudanese Man's Story of Hope

Unadilla Valley Central School students heard firsthand from a man who had a perilous experience as a boy in South Sudan in the 1980s, fleeing as a refugee to Ethiopia, then Kenya and later to the United States.

Gabriel Bol Deng was just 10 years old – not much older than the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students who attended his presentation Friday – when his ordeal began. It was 1987 when North Sudanese Murahileen militiamen attacked his village. He was able to flee into the forest, but he did not know what happened to the rest of his family.

After years spent as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya, Gabriel made it to the United States in 2001 under the Refugee Resettlement Program. He settled in Syracuse and eventually earned an associate’s degree in Mathematics and Sciences from Onondaga Community College and a bachelor’s degree in Arts in Philosophy with a minor in Mathematics Education from Le Moyne College in 2007, where he was named Student Teacher of the Year.

“I was really torn apart. Should I stay here and go on with my life? But there was something bothering me – that I had never seen my family again; never seen my village again. That part of me wanted to go back and really find out what’s become of my family,” Gabriel reflected during his presentation in the auditorium.

Gabriel made a return to his home village of Ariang in 2007 and was reunited with two of his brothers, although he lost many of his family members during the strife from two decades earlier. While there he saw the make-shift education young people were getting. He decided to act and founded the non-profit Hope for Ariang Foundation, which promotes education in his South Sudanese home village. The ground for a new Ariang school was broken in 2010 and the school now educates more than 500 students, including nearly 200 girls. 

Speaking Friday in the auditorium and then later with seventh graders in a more personal setting, Gabriel presented his mantra: ‘’He could move mountains with the power of hope.”

Secondary School English Teacher Katie Wolford, who helped coordinate Gabriel’s visit, said he was well-received by the students.

“I was pleased at the students’ attentiveness and willingness to ask questions. They mentioned things like, ‘He taught us that we should be grateful to have a home,’ and ‘To always believe in yourself and you can overcome anything,’’’ Wolford said. “He taught us to ‘have hope in order to move your mountain.’”

Wolford said the students talked with Gabriel about what their own personal mountains would be.

“The seventh graders took some pictures with him and had the chance to talk to him in a smaller group once the rest of the grade levels had left,” she said. “Overall, this was a great opportunity for kids to get background knowledge about a culture that is so different from ours and allows us to delve more deeply into the story of ‘A Long Walk to Water’ as we continue our study in seventh grade.”

The seventh graders are reading the book, a short novel written by Linda Sue Park that includes the true account of a Sudanese boy who had similar experiences to Gabriel’s and a fictional narrative of a Sudanese village girl.
Gabriel’s foundation’s website is www.hopeforariang.org.

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