Student Spotlight: From Refugee to Author

Makwei “Joseph” Mabioor Deng
December 01, 2010

It has been a long and difficult road for philosophy major Makwei “Joseph” Mabioor Deng. At an age when most students are completing secondary school, Deng was living at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, having fled there with his family to escape atrocities taking place in his southern Sudanese village. But, thanks to the Banaa Scholarship and his sheer determination to not just survive but make a difference, the Columbian College junior just published a book in his native language, Dinka, and has aspirations for law school.

“Wars and conflicts are endemic in Sudan,” wrote Deng in an autobiographical sketch. “I want to replace battlefield with courtroom, guns and bullets with legal representation, and open confrontation with negotiation around the table.”

Banna.org, the Sudan Educational Empowerment Network, brings young Sudanese men and women to the U.S. to further their education on the condition that they will return to the Sudan upon graduation and commit to public service. The Banaa chapter at GW was founded by philosophy majors Jeffrey DeFlavio, BA ’08 and Evan Farber, BA ’08, as a constructive response to decades of violence and continued impoverishment in the Sudan. Philosophy Professor Paul Churchill serves as the faculty advisor for the chapter.

Deng, GW’s first Banaa scholar, did not wait to return to the Sudan to begin his public service. Drawing on his experiences as a former teacher in refugee camps and motivated by the need to preserve the endangered language and culture of the Dinka, Joseph spent the summer after his freshman year working on his book. Although spoken by approximately three million people, many of whom are pastoralists, there are very few, if any, instructional materials for teaching Dinka as a written language. Deng’s lavishly illustrated book serves both as a grammar guide and lexicon for the Dinka language.

“Deng’s efforts will help Dinka transition from an oral language to a standardized written language,” said Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt, who met Deng last month and is working to bring his achievements to the attention of linguists and cultural anthropologists specializing in endangered languages.

Through his philosophy studies, Deng has found the best way to put his life experiences in perspective and to think ethically and holistically about the future of the southern Sudan. Looking ahead, he envisions himself returning to his native country “with the relevant skills and resources to promote reconciliation, sustainable development and a long lasting peace in the Sudan.”

To read more about Deng, his book, and his life story visit http://www.banaa.org/makwei.php.