Empathizing with South Sudan

On Tuesday, October 16, students enrolled in a class called The World in Which We Live got to spend more than an hour talking and empathizing with Nyuol Tong, a Duke University junior from South Sudan who is starting a school in his home village of Ayeit.

This method of learning about the world from real people will happen on a regular basis at Triangle Learning Community, a middle school opening in Durham in the fall of 2013.

Students will prepare for powerful experiences, have the experiences, and will then take time to unpack and reflect upon those experiences. This blog post is a start of a reflection:

Students in my class prepared for Nyuol’s visit by reading and discussing this excellent article about him from Duke Magazine two weeks ago.

We then spent time in class brainstorming a list of questions to ask Nyuol.  We then added to the list from home, using this shared Google Doc that I set up to allow us to collaborate.

Because of our thorough preparation (and because the students in my class are quite impressive young people), we were able to make the most of our time with Nyuol. The questions the students asked Nyuol were insightful.

As an example, students knew this excerpt from the article we read and discussed:

After [Nyuol’s father, the chief of his village] refused to join a Khartoum-backed militia, the militia captured him. He escaped and went into hiding. When the militia could not find him, they tried to intimidate him by targeting everything associated with him. They torched the family’s land; they stole the family’s cows, prized possessions in the Dinka tribe; and they targeted his children, including Nyuol. Once, armed men from the militia grabbed Nyuol, threw him into a hole, and fired ammunition around him.

Students thought about what that must have been like.  We did not ask Nyuol about that particular episode, but it helped that we knew it as background.  We also discussed basic terminology, such as how Khartoum is the capital of Sudan, and that a “Khartoum-backed militia” means a militia that is supported by the ruling government, so there would be nobody in the government Nyuol’s father could ask for help.

My students asked Nyuol to unpack this next sentence from the article:

After that, his mother, several brothers and sisters, and Nyuol fled to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Nyuol was five years old. He would not see his father for the next fourteen years.

Students asked Nyuol what “fled to Khartoum” meant — what was like, at age five and a half, to flee his village for the unknown city of Khartoum?  What was it like not to have your father around for 14 years?

Nyuol explained that the trip from Ayeit to Khartoum was unlike any trips we had taken in our lives — this trip took Nyuol’s mother and siblings one and a half years.

Nyuol explained that while it would seem, based on the map below, that he and his family might travel from Ayeit to Khartoum on a route that followed the Nile River, as indicated in green on the map below:

Nyuol explained that armies guarded both sides of the Nile, so that route was not an option. Nyuol fled with his mother and three sisters (three of his brothers had previously left for Khartoum), and he described spending six months in the Sudd (underlined in purple below), one of the largest swamps in the world:

The rest of the trip, following roughly the blue lines, took another year.  Nyuol and his family had to leave the Sudd during the rainy season, because it floods.

Along their route, they would stop and farm for whoever needed help with farming along the way in order to have food to eat and water to drink.

Nyuol also explained that while his family often walked from sunup to sundown, covering tens of miles each day, he did not personally walk that far because he was only five and half when the trip began.  Apparently, some men who were helping his mother and sisters on the journey would often carry Nyuol for part of the journey.

The goal of Triangle Learning Community is to help students become empathetic global citizens. The way to empathize is to slow down and take the time to think about the meaning of phrases such as “Nyuol fled to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.” If we take the time to think about where his home village of Ayeit is located, where Khartoum is located, and what it means that at every turn his family had to hide from militiamen supported by the government of Sudan, we get a much more meaningful picture of what Nyuol’s family’s flight entailed. That’s the beginning of empathy.

Further evidence of empathy: one student noted, in her written reflection about what we learned, that it must be amazing for Nyuol to be able to say that he has 43 brothers and sisters. “Around here,” she wrote, “when someone has 5 or 6 kids that is ‘crazy.’ ”

One final point for this blog entry: students asked Nyuol what it was like to live in a refugee camp in Khartoum for several years. As he started to describe what it was like, we used Google Images to find a picture of what a refugee camp outside of Khartoum might look like:

Nyuol said that was pretty representative, but also noted that shelters his family lived in would not be that nice, and would often be made of cardboard, as in this picture we found online:

Nyuol also noted, when he saw that first picture of a refugee camp, that the poles used to hold up the tarps are quite expensive for refugees to afford:

Having a chance to talk with someone who has led such an extraordinary life, and who is doing such positive things for his community back home in Sudan, was an experience students will not soon forget. This is the sort of powerful learning that should — and can — happen on a regular basis today.

P.S.  When I drove Nyuol back to Duke, we had a chance to talk, and he reiterated that one of the biggest challenges facing South Sudan, as the world’s newest country, is food insecurity.  It’s hard to be productive when a large portion of your society is hungry.

To address this need, Nyuol, a literature and linguistics major at Duke, is studying the genetics of corn this semester and cross-breeding seeds. He is taking an independent study with a Duke biologist, Dr. Mary Eubanks, who is teaching him how to breed the seeds she developed herself and patented.

Nyuol’s plan is to grow a strand of corn in Ayeit that would grow in two seasons, rather than just one — effectively doubling the yield of the corn crop.

Here’s an update from Nyuol’s Facebook page earlier today:



About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Empathizing with South Sudan

  1. John Burk says:

    Such an amazing learning experience, and Nyuol sounds like such an amazing young man. Huge kudos to you for making experiences like this possible for your students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s