South Sudan became the world’s newest independent nation in 2011 after nearly 50 years of civil war. The war between the Arab Muslim north and the Black African Christian south took a tragic toll as an estimated 2 million people died due to the war, famine and disease. An estimated 4 million people were displaced as a result of the conflict. Countless children became orphaned.
The villages where the “Lost Girls” came from were attacked by the armed forces of the Khartoum government of President al-Bashir (the Janjaweed) in the 90’s when they were just children ranging from five to seven years in age. Some of the girls saw their parents and family members killed and all sought refuge in the bush from the violence. A walking exodus then began, with the girls following the rest of the displaced people of the region. Those that made the treacherous trek walked between 100-150 miles to get to the Kakuma refugee camp.
At the refugee camp, each girl that arrived without her family was placed with other families. The girls were made into servants, doing whatever the woman or man of the “foster family” wanted them to do. Those that reached puberty were forced to have sex with the man of the family, as the traditions dictated in the polygamous community they were now a part.
Sister Luise, a Dominican sister, tried to rescue as many of the girls as possible from the refugee camp by bringing them to her orphanage in Juja, Kenya. Micklina Peter Kenyi was one of the oldest of the young women at the orphanage and she was put in charge of running things. When the U.S. State Department determined that the Lost Boys and Girls were eligible to immigrate to the U.S. under the refugee program, Sister Luise helped them to apply.
Micklina was the first Lost Girl to gain approval and was sent to live in the Denver metro area. Upon her arrival, the support network in place left a great deal to be desired. She was assigned to a family and was placed in a menial job, but she had been promised the opportunity to go to school. Eventually, she found the support she was originally promised when several local community member came to her aid. After improving her English, she gained entrance into the University of Colorado, where she received a Bachelor’s Degree and went on to earn a Master’s Degree.
CSSAW, the Community of South Sudanese and American Women was formed by Micklina and her husband Omunu Abalu with the sole purpose of helping the Lost Girls that were coming to Colorado. Their mission was to assist these girls to adjust to life in Boulder, find housing, support their efforts to get a GED, help them find better paying jobs than the ones found by the refugee organizations, and go to either the local community college or to CU Boulder.
Of the 18 girls that CSSAW helped, five graduated from CU, seven received associate degrees from Front Range Community College and seven completed their Colorado State certification as Certified Nursing Assistants. The first six girls arrived in July of 2006 and the rest came over the next year. The refugee program ended when a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005 which led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The girls that had already started their process to immigrate to the U.S. were allowed to continue.
Concurrently, CSSAW in partnership with several volunteers set out to create a documentary of these courageous young women. The Dawn Will Break film chronicles the lives and struggles of the Lost Girls and began shooting at a time when the civil war was still ravaging Sudan. At this time, before the South Sudanese independence, there was a real threat that the culture of the girls’ tribe, D’dinga, would be lost. The film aims to document what happened to these young women as they survived the destruction of their villages and fled to Kenya, mirroring the Shoah project of Steven Spielberg which documented what happened to Holocaust survivors of Auschwitz.
In 2010, CSSAW completed its initial mission. All 18 girls that the organization helped were living independently, had good jobs and had started their own families. The board discussed what to do next. Micklina and Omunu traveled back to South Sudan to visit relatives and saw that the educational opportunities for the kids of their home area were severely limited. They proposed to the board that the organization should continue its mission helping children improve their lives through education, and to do so now in South Sudan. This proposal led to a decision to build an American style private primary school in a rural region of South Sudan. The area chosen for the school is Isalaro, where the organization was given a huge tract of land by the state and local governments in conjunction with tribal leaders.
As a part of the new mission, the organization rebranded and became The Empowerment Through Education Foundation (ETE Foundation), focusing on educating the children of South Sudan.