Paying for Part of a Future in South Sudan

It looked like a typical garage sales in the Clairemont neighborhood. The tables were covered with used household goods, and kids were selling hot chocolate for 25 cents following a Saturday morning downpour. The only thing that seemed different here was a white van parked on the street that had “Southern Sudanese Community Center” hand-painted on the side, along with a flag I didn’t recognize.

The garage was attached to a house owned by Molly Wauson, and the sale was raising money to build a school in South Sudan.

Molly Wauson is a St. Didacus Parish School parent who is applying for 501c3 status for a non-profit called “Shaping Bright Futures.” The inspiration arrived last year when her 4th grader Abby wrote an essay about the people called the “lost boys” of Sudan. Soon after that she met a man named Mathew Riek, a former lost boy who ended up living in San Diego.

Onetime lost boy Mathew Riek with Molly Wauson.

Onetime lost boy Mathew Riek with Molly Wauson.

Abby and her mother were riveted by Mathew’s story, and they were inspired by his dream of building a school in his home village in South Sudan. That was when Molly Wauson began fundraising at a variety of places, including St. Didacus.

“The kids at St. Didacus were incredible!” said Wauson. “They raised over $850 by bringing in their jars of pennies.”

Mathew Riek is a small man with a slight build whose ebony face is animated by frequent smiles. His pleasant, peaceful nature seems at odds with the story of violence and desperation that ruled his childhood.

“I dodged bullets. I walked in the desert with lions in the cover of the dark of night. I starved and was thirsty, and was so tired,” he said.

Riek says he was a goat herder as a boy in his native village of Buaw. But Sudan’s internal war sent Riek on the run at the age of 12. After walking for what he said was a thousand miles he found refuge in a camp in Ethiopia. But political warfare in that country drove him out again at gunpoint, and he returned to Sudan by crossing the infamous Gilo River, with its dangerous rapids and man-eating crocodiles.

He lived in a camp in Sudan until the government sent planes to bomb it, and Mathew Riek fled once more, finally ending up in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. He survived nine years there, often having to fight with other residents over the slim rations of food and water.

But eventually some American charitable groups arrived with the promise of resettlement. He remembers having to write an essay about his experience, memorize it and then meet with a representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

“You had to tell your story to the INS and try to get it right, because if you don’t tell the story the same way as you wrote it you might not come to America,” he recalls.

Mathew did make it to America after being sponsored by Catholic Charities. Now he’s focused on building his life and partnering with Molly Wauson and others to build a school in his village. Wauson said they are looking at an overall cost of at least $30,000, and their philosophy is to build it one brick at a time, at $3 a brick.

“We are using the people in Mathew’s village who learned in the refugee camp how to make their own bricks,” she said, adding that there will be a considerable expense in providing and transporting materials.

Wauson said children in Mathew Riek’ s village need the walls and the roof of a schoolhouse to make instruction consistent. Now, the kids have their lessons under a tree and they can’t hold classes during the rainy season or when it’s too hot.

Riek adds that education is his first priority for helping the kids of South Sudan, where the official illiteracy rate is 73 percent, though he expects it’s actually much higher. As for his own family, Riek said he’s lost his father and his mother. All that is left of his family are his three sisters.

“My sisters don’t have a home. They don’ t have education. But thank God they’ re alive.”

Note: This is story also appeared in the St. Didacus School newsletter “Future Vision.”

 

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