I didn’t want to be that guy, the one who goes to Africa and has his life turned upside down—but I’m him. I visited the Kakuma Refugee camp in 2007 with Joseph Akol Makeer, Deb Dawson and Matt McGregor on our way to making the documentary African Soul, American Heart. We traveled on to Duk Payuel, South Sudan, and asked the people of Joseph’s village what we could do, and the answer was “school, school, school.”
Ten years later, African Soul, American Heart has put three boys and one girl through high school in Kenya and we currently have 43 girls in boarding school in Uganda. We had to move the whole program twice, once after fighting broke out in South Sudan in 2014 and again in 2016 when the flood of refugees to Uganda overwhelmed the town we had relocated to. Deb Dawson deserves almost all the credit for the organization’s success, but I’ve put countless hours into meetings, event planning, fundraising, blogging, and visiting the program twice, first in 2015 and again in 2017. Betsy and I sponsor Deborah Akon, one of the original students who was 10 when we started; she just turned 17 and is doing well in 8th grade. She is our ASAH daughter, we give all we can to support her, but on Giving Hearts Day, we hope that you will join us in supporting the ASAH School for Orphaned Girls from South Sudan.
When I came back from my trip in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of building a school 7,000 miles away in one of the most remote, difficult to access, parts of the world. But I knew I had to do something. I had seen 60,000 people in Kakuma hanging on by a thread, and I knew that many of the refugees who came to Fargo came from Kakuma. Mary Pipher in The Middle of Everywhere, described the refugee experience as moving “from fire to fire.” I had come to see that the transition to the US came with safety, but all sorts of complications: bills to pay, wrongful eviction notices to deal with, learning to read and write in English even for those who had never gone to school in their home country. So I started volunteering with Giving + Learning and was paired with Faizil and Ardo, and amazing couple I came to love like brother and sister. Faizil finished 3rd grade but Ardo had not held a pencil before coming to the US. Today they are both citizens and proud voters; Ardo has her driver’s permit but she is waiting for summer to work on her behind the wheel skills. Faizil has been paralyzed since he was 14, and Ardo is his caretaker; having a license and vehicle will give them more freedom and mobility than they have had their first 10 years in Fargo.
Giving + Learning had to close its doors in 2011, but it gave me such an incredible experience I knew I had to figure out a way to restart the program. I re-launched in 2014, and matched 50 volunteers and learners. In 2015, Giving + Learning served about 75 learners and tutors, and in 2016 we broke 100. Giving + Learning became a program within the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, we expanded from in-home tutoring to weekend tutoring and we are running a very successful International Family Learning Night in cooperation with Fargo Public Schools.
The Consortium is an organization full of people Giving All They’ve Got. Executive Director Christian Harris has donated three years to his position, receiving only the smallest of stipends; Darci Asche the Development Director actually wears about four hats for the Consortium, working full time day in and day out to create a position that will eventually be able to pay someone—not her–an appropriate salary. These super volunteers, a great board, and a host of other volunteers supported over 300 people in various capacities last year and will undoubtedly support closer to 400 people this year. But for all of us to keep Giving All We’ve Got, we would great appreciate your support on Giving Hearts Day.