When Nyuol Tong was only five years old, he was beaten in his home by North Sudanese militiamen, who threatened to kill him.

Twelve years later, Tong has found freedom – and purpose – in Santa Barbara, where he runs his nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing education to the Sudanese people. With more life experience under his belt before high school graduation than most people can boast of in a lifetime, 17-year-old Nyuol sees his mission as only just beginning.

“When I came here, I really didn’t think of giving back or trying to help people – I didn’t think coming to America was the idea – I thought I would be going back,” Tong said. But, he says, things have changed.

Since its official groundbreaking last Saturday, Tong’s organization, the Sudan Education for Liberty Foundation (S.E.L.F.), has been gaining attention. The nonprofit group aims to educate youths in Sudan by supporting the construction of schools and the hiring of teachers.

“Everything Sudan is struggling with is education – when you bring education to people, they discover themselves and their potential,” says Tong, “And when they have this potential, they try to find a way to use it.”

A Tumultuous Past

Born in the midst of the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), Tong, the son of a village chief in Southern Sudan, grew up under constant attack from North Sudanese religious extremists.

After Tong’s father miraculously escaped execution for resisting Northern invading forces, a group of militants visited the family’s house and beat the then five-year-old Tong, demanding he tell them where his father was. Shortly after the attack, Tong’s family fled the violence and war that had gripped Southern Sudan.

His family fist traveled to Khartoum, in northern Sudan, where war was not a constant threat. But because he was Southern Sudanese in Northern Sudan, Tong was denied an education.

When he was 12-years-old, Tong and his family took refuge in Cairo, Egypt. There, at a refugee educational center, Tong developed his niche for activism and involvement, founding the school’s first student government and helping in the creation of its constitution. He excelled in academics and became a symbol of leadership at the refugee center.

Alethea Paradis, the head of the history department at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Ynez as well as the faculty advisor of the Amnesty International club on campus, first met Tong through a pen-pal program her students adopted with Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. She would eventually be key in bringing him to the United States.

“The remarkable thing about [Tong] is even though he made it here – got out of the war zone and all the way to a private school in the United States – all he can think about is how to give back to his people and how to take his opportunities and give more opportunities to others,” Paradis said.

Education for the Masses

The Sudanese Civil War officially ended in 2005, but Southern Sudan still suffers from extreme poverty, genocide and lack of education. Tong hopes that with S.E.L.F., he can connect with the Sudanese people and bring the fundamental strengths of the American education system to his home country.

“This war is going to kill everyone in Sudan – the war of poverty and literacy. Refugees are returning to Sudan, but there is nothing there. Young boys without school join gangs, and it decimates the population. Sudan is still at war – it’s a war over poverty and education,” says Tong.

Tong hopes that by bringing education to the people of Sudan, he can do his small part in helping to stabilize his home country.

“Seeing American education is inspiring – seeing the culture and how people are open to education, there is acceptance,” says Tong, “Education is a big factor in America’s stability. It’s one of many factors, and I am trying to help make Sudan more stable, like America.”

Though S.E.L.F. is just getting off the ground, Tong is already planning his trip to Sudan next summer to assess the state of the country and look into where and how to go about constructing schools.

“I hope to start building schools as soon as next year, village to village,” he says, “and to record what we need in terms of equipment and the money we will have to raise.”

Following Through

Although his foundation is aimed at raising the money his Sudanese counterparts are unable to, Tong is determined not to allow his efforts to become a foreign intervention that ignores the desires of Sudan.

“I want to make the Sudanese people part of the process,” he says. “People are depressed there, and when you give them a chance to empower themselves, it gives them strength, and that’s what I plan to do. Talk to them, be a part of them and make them feel proud.”