Murray, KY – Elizabeth Awok isn't like most Southern Sudanese women, whose traditional roles revolve around their homes and children. Some of them might receive basic education in refugee camps or in the country's few schools, but daily chores and early marriage often hinder their attendance - or eliminate it completely. Instead, Awok has just received her high school diploma, and she did so thanks to the Women's Educational Empowerment Project for Southern Sudan, otherwise known as WEEP.
"Education in Kenya is nice compared to other places like Sudan. Education in Sudan is poor because of the war."
Education in Kenya is nice, she says, compared to other places like Sudan. The schools are poor in her country because the second Sudanese civil war tore the country apart, destroying infrastructure and displacing millions of citizens. For years, Elizabeth lived in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, attending class in mud-brick buildings with few books and supplies. She had almost finished high school in 2007 when the United Nations announced it was closing the camp, and she and her family had to go back to Sudan, where there was little opportunity to finish her degree. That's when Gabriel Akech Kwai and three Murray State students arrived in Kakuma and selected her for their new program.
"When we found her in the camp, she was having no hope, but right now, this has inspired her, and she graduated with, you know, a B plus in high school."
Kwai began WEEP in 2007 on Murray State University's campus. A Sudanese refugee himself, Kwai was separated from his family when he was 8 years old. He lived in refugee camps with other orphans until the United States flew him to Kentucky in 2001. Here he earned a GED and a degree in finance from Murray State. He created the organization because be believed the best way to educate his country was to educate its mothers.
"We are trying to plant the seed for future generation, and through her graduation, I think we have achieved this because she will be able to teach her kids."
The group raises money by finding sponsors willing to donate approximately $32 per month to pay for a girl's school tuition. WEEP is currently putting 10 girls through school and hopes to continue adding to that list until it can build a permanent school in Sudan. Tamsyn Garner serves as the organization's student group president. An International Affairs major, she has researched the effect of education on the general well-being of a country and believes WEEP has chosen one of the most efficient methods to improve conditions in Sudan.
"Through looking at statistics of different countries, I definitely think that countries with high literacy rates and high high school seem to be doing better economically - health wise. Through WEEP, we can change communities."
WEEP recently held a graduation party for Awok February 26 to celebrate this achievement. The event featured catered snack food, a speech from Kwai and a short documentary of WEEP's trip to Kenya to select program participants. The party didn't last long, but it was enough to educate the small group of students who trickled in. Junior Cassie Johnson said the group's work captured her interest, but she wasn't too optimistic about its ability to reach the majority of students on campus.
"I don't know if it will on this campus, per say, because a lot of people seem closed off. Maybe it's just because Murray is so small, but I feel like there aren't a whole lot of people on this campus who are open to these new ideas or things that they don't really know a lot about. I mean, I hope it catches on."
WEEP hopes that Elizabeth Awok can change this. The legitimacy her graduation provides could make the group and its cause seem more worthwhile to students. For Elizabeth, however, her diploma means much more. Tamsyn Garner
"There are jobs in Sudan that are for women that have been educated so they can have more women in the workforce. So, this means she is more eligible for those jobs and, also, that she's finished a high school education. She can now go on to college if she wishes. If not, she could always just teach others in her community, so it's a pretty big deal for her."
Elizabeth's dream, however, is to continue her education and attend college.
"I think I can succeed if I go back to college and finish my studies, but for now, I have no money along with me."
Elizabeth says she believes she can succeed if she goes back to college, but for now, she does not have the money. Yet, WEEP might be able to help with that, as well. Garner says the group is trying to start a branch at the University of Kentucky that will raise money to send the girls to college once they have completed high school. For now, however, it's taking smaller steps and trying to outfit as many girls as it can in brand new boarding school uniforms.