The Middlebury Campus

Education, a human right

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Aylie Baker

“Life as a refugee,” reflected Alex Pial this past Thursday afternoon, quietly tracing the sleeve of his shirt before glancing up to the assembly of students, “it is not safe. You do not know tomorrow. You do not know today.”

A refugee from southern Sudan, Pial settled in Burlington six years ago and just recently became a citizen of the United States. In his address during the “Faces Behind Human Rights” symposium, Pial drew upon his personal experiences searching for asylum to highlight the importance of education as a human right.

The Sudanese conflict is a difficult one to define. While superficially it can be deliniated along religious fissures – a predominately Muslim North versus a Christian and Animist south – the conflict was only further mired by political manuevering and economic grievances, not to mention the quest for oil. Twenty-one years after the civil war began, Sudan still reels from overwhelming causalties (estimated at 1.5 million according to BBC) and a trampled infrastructure. In 2003, heightened agitation in the Darfur region gave way to further acts of genocide. With the recent return of millions of displaced southernors, Sudan faces huge hurdles as it looks towards reconstruction.

When civil war broke out in 1987, a young Pial was forced to flee his pastoral village in Southern Sudan. Along with between15,000 and 30,000 other homeless children, Pial wandered hundreds of miles eastward across a desolate landscape, struggling to reach Ethiopia and refuge.

“I had my feet,” said Pial humbly, only briefly touching on the looming starvation, fear and disease that had shrouded his journey.

Upon reaching a refugee camp in Ethiopia, however, Pial’s plight was only marginally improved.

“I was just ignored,” said Pial, who described how refugees were forced “to live on a daily basis, when the sun will rise, when the sun will set.” When the Ethiopian government fell to Sudanese forces, Pial was flung into uncertainty once again.

“You don’t know your future,” he said, “so searching for safety, that’s your only goal.” Against all odds, Pial finally found refuge at the Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya, where he remained until 2001.

Yet even in Kakuma, a camp with a strong U.N. presence, Pial said, the refugees “were not treated like human beings.” Forced to carry a permit, endure meager rations and adhere to strict curfews, Pial remained an outsider.

“Who are you?” ventured Pial to a solemn audience. “Just a refugee.” He continued, a certain heaviness mounting in his voice, “If something happens to you, you die. No one will care.”

Pial was a refugee from 1987 to 2006. Caught amidst a constant struggle for survival, Pial described how throughout his time in refugee camps, education was nearly obsolete. Pial first learned to write in the dust, huddled amongst 100 other pupils of various ages. Now happily settled in Burlington, he feels indebted to his people.

“Our people are blind,” Pial said regarding education in southern Sudan. “What can I do?”

Building high schools and technical schools is one step towards peace, he said.

The New Sudan Education Initiative (NESEI), of which Pial is currently an active member, seeks to utilize education as a means of promoting and sustaining peace in the southern part of the country. Operating under this mantra, NESEI plans to have 20 schools by 2015

Pial is one of roughly 100 Sudanese families that have been resettled in Vermont through the assistance of Vermont Refugee Assistance.

“Bringing Alex Pial here to talk about his experiences as a refugee was important because it got people engaged with events far beyond their experiences,” said Michael Sheridan, professor of Anthropology, of the event.

Lily Hamburger ‘07.5, a leader of STAND up, the new genocide and injustice awareness group and a key organizer of the event, shared similar sentiments.

“The reason why I invited him to come is because in the context of human rights, they can often seem really distant, really cerebral at times,” said Hamburger. “The affect of meeting someone who has lived through a genocide and escaped, the affect of greeting them and shaking their hand – that’s really important and really valued.”

Pial’s narrative, insisted Sheridan, was significant in that it encouraged students to challenge their definition of a human right.

“Many of the international human rights policies and laws specify what states cannot do to a generic individual – you should not be tortured, you should not be held without trial, etc.,” said Sheridan. “But there isn’t enough discussion of how access to education is a human rights issue as well.”

“So having Alex come here to talk about his path through education was a way to spark a longer-term conversation about what education is and means for everyone in the world, starting with the most vulnerable and marginalized people.”

As Sudan teeters between a bloody past and uncertain future, narratives such as Pial’s are essential to increasing understanding and establishing common values worldwide. Indeed, remarked Sheridan, it is “in this way [that] the ‘Midd bubble’ starts to pop and people get engaged.”

STAND up will be organizing several other events and iniatives in the near future, including an effort to establish an endowment for a refugee scholarship and an exhibit on refugees in Vermont at the Vermont Folk Life Center in Middlebury this coming Spring.

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