Student starts effort to help people in his African homeland

MURRAY, Ky.- When Gabriel Akech Kwai graduates from Murray State University in December, he’ll have more than a finance degree. He’ll also learned how to help his troubled African homeland.

Kwai, who has lived in the United States for six years, has established the Women’s Educational Empowerment Project for Southern Sudan to help educate and empower women there. The goal is to bridge the educational gap between the northern and southern regions of the wartorn nation.

“This is where my dreams lie,” Kwai said in a recent interview with the Murray Ledger Times. “… I learned that children learn a lot from their mothers, and if we educate the women of Sudan, then we help her entire family.”

Kwai, who was born in 1979, was 7 years old when his father was killed in northern Sudan. His homeland was divided by civil war that eventually forced him to travel with the 33,000 other “Lost Boys of Sudan” to Ethiopia and later to a Kenyan refugee camp.

He lived in Ethiopia from 1987 until 1991, when that government ordered the refugees to leave the country within 24 hours. Kwai recalled the devastation to come: While seeking shelter in Kenya, Ethiopian militias attacked the young refugees, killing 5,000 of them in one day.

“I was one of the luckiest who crossed the border,” he said.

Kwai spent the next nine years at the Kenyan refugee camp. There he received his elementary and high school education. It was in 1997 that he received hope when U.S. officials visited the camp, beginning the long process that led to 4,000 of the boys being able to settle in the United States in 2001.

Kwai came to Louisville, where he worked and then went to Jefferson Community College. After two years there, he enrolled at Murray State.

In February, he started Women’s Educational Empowerment Project for Southern Sudan.

“When I came to America, I worked in different places and learned about American culture,” Kwai said. “One thing I learned is that when we support another part of the world, places can change. I learned about women in the different workplaces. I had some woman as supervisors and they were doing great things. They were contributing to the economy. I realized women in Sudan could get an education and help the country.”

Last year, Kwai was able to see his mother for the first time in two decades. He said she’s happy that he’s started the effort to educate women in their homeland

“She was not educated,” Kwai said. “My dad was the only educated person. When my dad died, all of us suffered.

His short-term goals are to sponsor 10 young women to attend high school in surrounding countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, and broaden the support network for the nonprofit project. Then later, Kwai hopes WEEP can build schools in southern Sudan and empower women.

Men and women in northern Sudan have 71 percent and 52 percent literacy rates, respectively, while the literacy rate among men is 37 percent and 12 percent for women in southern Sudan, according to information from the United Nations Population Fund.

Narrowing this educational gap could raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve health, reduce poverty and reduce HIV/AIDS outbreaks, Kwai says on his project’s promotional brochure.

WEEP aims to pair American donors with Sudanese women

“I’m getting a lot of positive response from the churches and people I’ve talked to,” Kwai said. “They are willing to think about it and they really want to support us.”

Now, he’s concentrating on gaining assistance in western Kentucky, but he’s also maintained support in Louisville. In July, Kwai traveled to California to talk to the NAACP, which plans to sponsor one girl next year and made a donation. Besides getting the effort established, Kwai and the six other Murray State students helping him are planning a mission trip for a few months next year to see conditions in southern Sudan.

Information from: Murray Ledger Times,