Nobody wants to donate money to a lost cause.
That’s why the charity dedicated to building schools in the nation of Sudan struggled until the bitter civil war finally ended in January 2011, when the nation of Southern Sudan gained its independence from Sudan.
“People said, ‘How can you build a school in a war zone?’” said 34-year-old Sebastian Maroundit, who founded the non-profit, Building Minds in Sudan, in 2009.
Maroundit is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who were seized during the bitter civil war that spanned three decades — the longest running conflict in African history. He came to the United States at the age of 22 and now lives in Rochester.
He started the non-profit with high hopes, but was disappointed to see that people hesitate when it came to donating funds.
When South Sudan finally declared independence in 2011, Maroundit said donations finally started rolling in.
In 1988, he was taken from his village of Wunrock and traveled alongside thousands of children across the desert by foot to a series of refugee camps. The children were referred to as “minors,” and the Southern Sudanese leaders were their “caretakers.” He was only nine years old at the time.
Maroundit spent three years in a UN refugee camp in Ethiopia and then relocated to a similar camp in Kenya, where he spent nearly a decade eating just one meal a day and learning to read and write.
Although he was in a safe place, he was haunted by memories, like the sight of his five-year-old sister being shot in front of him. He wondered about his mother at home. Maroundit later learned that she survived the attacks but his father had been tortured to death.
Along with his peers, Maroundit thought that the only solution to their grief was to take up guns and fight back.
“I wanted to go to military school to become a soldier and go to South Sudan to rescue my mother,” he said.
Today he is thankful to say that because of his education and religious conversion, he took a different path.
A new life
He was 21 when he got the chance to leave Africa and start a new life in the U.S. He still remembers sitting in the office of a UN agent who asked him where he’d like to move.
“I told them I needed a cool place,” he said, “But they misunderstood me,” he added with a chuckle, saying the climate in Rochester was the extreme opposite of the 130-degree temperatures he was used to.
Since the move, Maroundit has finished college and become a U.S. citizen. He works as a bookkeepper at Strong Hospital and is also an accounting and business tutor for a tutor for college students.
Page 2 of 3 - Although learning to speak English and adjusting to American culture was often difficult, he has never forgotten those who stayed behind.
“My life here in Rochester is about knowing where I’m going and where I’m coming from,” he said.
In a stroke of fate, he learned that his fellow Lost Boy and cousin, Mathon Noi, had been sent to the same city and had been living there for one year. The two have since joined efforts to return to their birthplace to help the natives pick up the pieces of a long war and move forward for future generations.
But where do you begin?
His own experience showed him that education is the first step in providing a stable lifestyle for school-age children. Unlike short-term relief, this provides lasting results.
“You can give them food or clothing, but that can’t change their lives. Only education can do that.”
In January, Maroundit went back to South Sudan with his cousin, and Fairport man Ted Avgerinos, where they signed over $100,000 in charitable funds to raise two new school buildings in Mayen-Abun, where Maroundit was raised.
They spent several weeks traveling from from city to city by plane and car. Cattle walked freely in the streets and children ran through the dusty villages, where the visitors gassed up at a primitive roadside gas station.
It was the first time Avgerinos, known to many locally as the Erie Canal Handyman, had been to Africa. He first heard about Building Minds in Sudan through his church, and as a former school principal, he was intrigued by the concept.
For him, the trip was an eye-opening experience to see people living in mud huts and miles of land without paved roads. Despite the bleak setting, the locals proved to be resilient.
“I was impressed by the pride of the people,” he said. “You can tell in the way they dress that they’re extremely proud.”
During the trip, the three men spent time with village children who are currently being educated without any school building. The village has an organized local government and school administrators, but lacks the money to pay for facilities. As a result, children have their daily schooling outdoors under a tree.
“They’re managing,” said Avgerinos. “They have a lot of hope for their country.”
Although the charity only raised enough to lay the foundation for a school building and two classrooms the charity hopes to raise enough to add two more classrooms and a second building, principals office, library, kitchen, and latrine area. Maroundit hopes to return to the village in the fall.
For now, they’re doing what little they can at home to spread the word about these needs, Avgerinos explained. As native people in neighboring towns see signs of improvement, they hope to do the same.
Page 3 of 3 - “Already there are people knocking at our door waiting for a school.”