The George Washington University senior escaped from South Sudan in 2005. Today he is rebuilding his life as a college student in America. 

By Aya Elamroussi

Jacob Mator Aketch hopped on a lorry in 2005 and headed to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. He was 14.

He was not only fleeing political unrest in South Sudan caused by the long civil war, but also searching for a school that would teach him beyond the sixth grade.

“I wanted to continue the regular schooling,” Aketch said. But the highest level of education available to him in South Sudan was only sixth grade. His family didn’t have the money to relocate to a neighboring country like Ethiopia, Kenya or Uganda to help him continue his education. So he took off to Kenya alone as a refugee.

“They didn’t have any other option,” he said. His mom suggested that he go to carpentry school, but Aketch said he wasn’t interested in that.  

Jacob Mator Aketch at George Washington University. (Photo by: Aya Elamroussi)

He was interested in physics.

Today, Aketch studies physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Here on a student visa, Aketch’s story reveals the stakes of today: a refugee from a war-torn country living in the U.S. under an administration whose agenda about refugees — and immigrants — is constantly changing.

Aketch said he wants to share his experience.

“This story may be read by an American who hasn’t met a refugee before,” Aketch said. “He or she might have some prejudice of what refugees may be.

“If they read this story and realize a refugee is just a normal person who can do anything provided he or she is given the chance.”

Aketch is now on his way to graduate in May 2017 with his bachelor’s degree in physics and minor in mechanical engineering.

The path to an American university

As the civil war in Sudan worsened in 2007, some students at George Washington University started thinking about what they could do to help.

The students first created student-led organization called Banaa. Through the student organization, they communicated with the GWU administration to create the Banaa Scholarship Program, a program that matches Sudanese survivors of atrocity with scholarship opportunities in the United States.

Aketch made it to the U.S. in 2013 through this scholarship. And because he’s here strictly for educational reasons, he’s currently on a visa called F-1 Student Visa — while the rest of his family remains in South Sudan.

GWU grants Banaa scholars the costs of tuition, housing, books, food, transportation and any other living expenses, while the Banaa student organization raises funds for additional expenses like laptop maintenance and airfare.

The idea is to allow the recipient to enjoy a four-year, full-ride scholarship in America, “and then go back with the idea that they would do some peace building work when they returned,” said Mike Salvatore, one of the leaders of the Banaa program.

Salvatore joined the Banaa student organization his freshman year as director of scholar summit. During the summer of 2015, he arranged for all the Banaa scholars to meet in D.C. for a few days to visit various sites in the city.

Now a junior at GWU studying global health and geography, Salvatore has worked to correspond with the scholars, raise money for their expenses and smooth their path.

But now the Banaa student organization only has two organizers. Aketch’s graduation this May marks the program’s imminent end. GWU will no longer provide funds for future Banaa scholars.  

“We don’t really have the capacity to take more students,” Salvatore said.

He added that the current political climate also makes it difficult for other universities to adopt the Banaa program and host students.

“We don’t know the future of how immigration status is working under this administration. A university might not find it wise to invest in Banaa at the moment.”

Salvatore said it’s “unfortunate” that Banaa can’t fund more scholars because the political circumstances aren’t improving in Sudan or South Sudan.

“There’s still a great need for change.”

South Sudan is currently facing unrest fueled by tensions between the government and different ethnic groups. The instability set off a famine. United Nations peacekeepers are deployed there to alleviate conflicts.

Life as a refugee

Aketch said it wasn’t an easy decision for a 14-year-old to leave home and choose to live in a refugee camp. It was hard for him to live without the support of his family, he added.

“Refugee camp is kind of hell on earth,” Aketch said. Living in a refugee camp takes physical and emotional tolls on people, he said.

In the refugee camp, food was a commodity. It was sold in exchange for clothes or for money to call family members. He sold his food and went for a couple of days at a time without eating.

“That’s gruesome,” he said. But it was also necessary for Aketch to obtain clothes and call his family.

But he said he knew what he was getting himself into. “I knew there would be a lot of obstacles along my way.”

His inspiration to continue education after the sixth grade stemmed from the visits South Sudanese army generals paid to his school to emphasize the importance of education. Aketch said generals sat students down and told them, “This, what you’re doing here, is the future of this country … so take education seriously.”

Aketch, now 25, spends most of his days, even weekends, completing assignments.

“I am a typical nerd who does [homework] every day,” Aketch said. When he has time, he visits the Smithsonian museums, watches Netflix or reads books by his favorite author Tom Clancy.

“That by itself is one of the worst things that can happen to any person: being not able to fit into society just because the thought you have in mind about how those people perceive foreigners.” — Jacob Aketch

But when he was in Kenya, his days went differently.  

At refugee camps, young people come together and spend much of their time playing — mainly soccer, he said. That was a mechanism for them to cope with their suffering, Aketch added.

He spent about four years in the Kakuma Refugee Camp before he was able to apply to a scholarship called the Sudan Scholarship Foundation. The scholarship allowed him to go to high school in Kenya, which was much better than the education he would have received at the refugee camp. It was made possible by a former refugee who went to visit the camp, seeking ways he can help provide better education. The former refugee is now settled in San Diego, Ca.

Aketch would spend the next four years moving back and forth between his boarding high school and the refugee camp. This was the first time he was no longer a full-time refugee at the camp.

After graduating high school in 2011, one of Aketch’s uncles in South Sudan told him to apply to colleges, and that he would cover the expenses.

“He was kind of impressed with my academic achievements,” he said.

His uncle told him to apply to colleges in Malaysia, South Africa or Kenya.

Aketch decided to attend University of Nottingham Malaysia. He was there for one year when his friend sent him an email informing him about the Banaa Scholarship Program at GWU.

“At first, I thought this cannot be real,” Aketch said.

Unbanned refugee

President Donald Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries has created serious concerns for refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S.

Although South Sudan is not one of the countries Trump has banned, the camp Aketch was in houses people from banned countries, such as Sudan.

“There [is] quite a number of students [who] may not be able to get a college admission within the period of the ban,” Aketch said. “And if you look at that, it is affecting them in a way.”

Aketch added that even if the ban is lifted and refugees from banned countries were allowed in America, refugees will have internalized the idea that they were banned from entering the U.S.

“They will come in with a different thought of America,” he said. “They will not express it.” But they will have it in their head that they will experience disconnect in the American society, Aketch added.

“They will have a hard time of adapting to American culture,” he said. “And that by itself is one of the worst things that can happen to any person: being not able to fit into society just because the thought you have in mind about how those people perceive foreigners.” 

Refugee in the classroom

Foreigners, like Aketch, add a unique value to the American college classroom, Lauren Sinclair, the academic director of the International Accelerator Program at American University, told Lauren Lumpkin.

“The fact that he’s black, I think, plays a role in the GW classroom,” said Gary White, an adjunct physics professor in GWU who taught Aketch three classes.

White added that representation from Aketch’s demographic is striking in the sense that it’s not common for black students to study physics.

With the Banaa program not taking any more students in the upcoming year, White said that it’s “a loss” to the classroom environment.

Aketch (far right) in a lab class at George Washington University. (Photo by: Gary White)

Aketch “certainly added to the classroom a certain rich experience and perspective that … I wouldn’t have seen before, and my students wouldn’t have seen before.”

When Aketch asks questions in class, White says, students tend to be more attentive because they are aware that he comes from “a slightly different background or perspective.”

Even with his different background, Aketch said he felt welcome when he came to the U.S.

“I came here with an open mind, ” he said. “Everyone was so friendly to me.”  But he also added that the ban makes student refugees feel “out of place.”

“The ban has a tremendous effect on them,” Aketch said. “They will have the thought of not being quite welcome.”

Featured photo by: Aya Elamroussi