Education

Escaping Oblivion

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Nhial Deng couldn’t sleep. In late March the slender young man with deep-brown eyes lay under a low sheet-metal roof. He was thinking about a place he had never seen but often imagined. A famous bronze gate stood there, and soon he would know if he would one day walk through it.

Long after midnight, Deng’s mind galloped far away from the Kakuma Refugee Camp, a vast stretch of mud-brick and concrete shelters in northwestern Kenya. The 22-year-old arrived there more than a decade ago, and each year felt heavier than the last. The camp was a cage. He wanted out.

He wanted to go to college, too. Just 3 percent of college-age refugees in the world are enrolled in higher education. He wanted to study in the United States, believing it’s a gateway to another life. He was stateless, separated from his parents, with no savings. He was also a reader, storyteller, and community leader who held learning sacred. “Education is all I yearn for,” he wrote in his college application essay. “If I am not a student, I am oblivion.”

Deng kept checking his phone as the near-full moon sank to the horizon. The camp of 170,000 peoplewas quiet except for the clatter of insects. Then, around 4 a.m., he saw what he had been waiting for, a message from the University of California at Berkeley. He logged into his application portal and watched bright balloons fill his screen. “Congratulations.” He turned on gospel music. In the darkness of his one-room dwelling he danced, cried, sang, and prayed.

But the celebration was fleeting. Days later, he saw the amount of money Berkeley had offered him. Just like that, his plan was in peril. He clutched at hope, the very thing that leads marginalized students all over the world to apply to U.S. institutions.

Getting to college, we’re often told, requires smarts and determination. But that’s not the whole truth. What’s true in Kenya is true in China, the United States, and everywhere else: The admissions realm is divided between insiders and outsiders, applicants who understand the rules and applicants who don’t even know the rules exist. The most vulnerable students, who often must navigate an opaque application process without a guide, become more vulnerable still when trying to leap from one life to another. For international students, many acceptances are useless because they come with little or no financial aid. To enroll they need documents that can prove hard to get.

For refugees, the most vulnerable students of all, the barriers are immense. Fewer than 30 come to the United States on an F-1 student visa each year. To get there they must overcome complex systems that in many ways work against them.

In April, Deng tried to summon a miracle . He contacted well-connected people in far-off countries to see if there was a way to get to Berkeley. Some who got to know him said he had an “X-factor,” a rare kind of energy; one called him “a once-in-a-lifetime kid.” With the admissions cycle winding down, a small team of advocates vowed to help him, a refugee stuck at the edge of civilization, desperate to find a new home.

But as Deng knew all too well, it’s hard, really hard, to escape oblivion.

Nhial Deng filled himself with stories, which helped him make sense of the world. As a young boy he would sit on his shoes in the evenings and listen to his father narrate the past from atop a stool. He heard stories of ancestors fighting wars and hunting animals, of floods washing away villages and communities overcoming hardship.

Deng heard stories coming through his father’s small Panasonic radio, too. It was on day and night, bringing news to his village in Itang, Ethiopia. His mother and father had met after fleeing Sudan’s brutal civil war. He was in the first grade when they split up. His mother and six siblings moved away; he stayed with his father, who did carpentry and sold maize.

Men from the village stopped by most nights to hear the news on Naath 88.0 FM, “the heartbeat of South Sudan.” Deng, who wasn’t allowed to join the elders, hid behind the house and put his ear to the thin walls while his father and other refugees discussed peace and war. He learned to listen carefully.

Though Naath carried broadcasts in Nuer, Deng’s first language, he heard BBC World News, too. The boy mimicked the news anchors, daydreaming about becoming a radio journalist and telling important stories in Africa. His father, who supported this dream, told him he must first master English. After learning the word “apple,” he wanted to learn more. He promised his father he would devote himself to education.

Then one morning in 2010, a militia attacked Deng’s village. His father woke him in the waning dark and told him he was going to Kenya, where he would be able to attend school. The boy understood: He was going alone, becoming a refugee. After stuffing some clothes and water into a paper bag, he ran toward a group of women and children. Together they fled. He heard gunshots and screams, saw houses burning and someone bleeding on the ground. He was 11 years old.

Deng and some of his neighbors walked, rode on a truck, and then walked some more. After about two weeks they reached Kakuma, which lies in a semi-arid region. He felt the ruthless heat, saw sandstorms, tasted dust.

Frightened and lonely, he recalled his father’s words in their last minutes together: You will become a journalist, and you will find me through the radio.

As Deng understood it, his father meant this: Someday he would hear his son’s voice on a broadcast, contact the appropriate station, and then reconnect with him. Or maybe someday his son could ask listeners for help in finding him. Maybe it was a fantasy, but it gave him what he needed: a scrap of hope in a hopeless place.

Inside the sprawling refugee camp, Deng watched people line up at communal taps to fill plastic containers with water. He smelled chapati cooking on hot skillets and heard the clanging of diesel-chugging generators. The camp wasn’t connected to a power grid.

John Thomas Muyumba for The Chronicle

Nhial Deng hangs out at a friend’s home in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, known as UNHCR, put him under its child-protection program, which covered the cost of everything he needed for school. Deng had no identification. The agency, following a standard practice, gave him papers stating that he was born on January 1, 1996. But he was actually born three years later — on January 20, 1999. The documents said he was Ethiopian, but the boy knew he was South Sudanese.

At school he made friends with Gatbel Koang Lul, who grew up splashing in the Nile River in South Sudan. They shared a love for stories. Deng helped Lul with his English, encouraging him when he stumbled. School gave them solace, a place to imagine a glowing future.

Then Deng turned 18, the age cut-off for the subsidies he needed to pay for his textbooks, pens, books, shoes, and exam fees. With two years of high school to go, he learned a lesson many refugees learn over and over: Once circumstances put you in a hole, bureaucratic rules can keep you from climbing out.

Distraught, Deng got a job tutoring young students so he could afford his school expenses. His grades slipped. He considered quitting.

But he couldn’t break his promise to his father. If he gave up on his education, he would lose something priceless. The chance to shape his own story.

Deng wanted to make peace. As a high-school senior, he saw many kids getting into fights, he heard them seething after scraps and vowing revenge. The teenager, stone-calm and reflective, had always hated conflict in any form, and he refused to think conditions in the camp couldn’t improve. He also understood the root of the problem: There were no activities to sustain young people, many of whom didn’t attend school. They were re-enacting the violence they had seen in their home countries.

So one day Deng and Lul put some wobbly chairs under an acacia tree and invited some friends to join them for a chat about their challenges and hopes. This was the first meeting of the Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors. Deng hoped the group would provide an outlet for young people’s frustrations, promote understanding among their diverse communities, and ease conflicts within the camp. As word spread, more and more people showed up for the Wednesday gatherings. There were workshops on peace. Storytelling sessions. Mentoring programs. Inter-community dialogues. Sports.

By 2019 more than 1,000 young refugees were participating. Deng, who developed much of the programming and oversaw the games, saw fewer brawls, heard more talk of peace. He learned that he didn’t need a lot of experience to achieve something. As Lul watched him mesh with people of many backgrounds, he thought, If God gives him the opportunity to be a diplomat, he can make the world more peaceful.

The burgeoning activist blew through books, reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. He wanted to understand the flames of human conflict and how to extinguish them. He became an advocate for refugees’ rights and expanding their access to necessities such as healthcare. He helped his neighbors write résumés and cover letters.

Deng developed a graceful public-speaking style, sincere and full of pauses. He spoke at UNHCR’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges and at events for visiting dignitaries. He urged UNHCR to provide students with more textbooks and solar-powered lanterns to enable them to study after the sun went down.

Sometimes Deng got angry. He asked himself why the world banished refugees to its corners and then forgot about them. There was a reason why some people said Kakuma was Swahili for “nowhere.” Though technically untrue, the word fit the feeling of being stuck that so many of the camp’s inhabitants — who had fled war and famine in other African countries, lost loved ones and livelihoods — felt in the remote camp. He knew people who had lived there for two decades. He feared being trapped there, too.

Deng used social media to reach beyond Kakuma, charging his phone at generator-powered stations for 10 Kenyan shillings. He met many people by tweeting and posting about human rights, education, gender equity, and youth empowerment. Before long his social network spanned five continents, which gave him a sense of community.

Many people Deng met felt drawn to him. In 2019 he connected with Elena Mora, a teacher in Alicante, Spain, who was researching the education gap between the Global North and South. Sometimes they chatted for hours, describing their respective cultures. She became a friend and mentor, helping him fine-tune his English. She marveled at how well he listened, how hard he worked to stretch his vocabulary and enhance the tone of his writing.

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John Thomas Muyumba for The Chronicle

Deng leads a meeting of teachers at Kakuma’s Innovation Lab School.

Mora celebrated with Deng when he was one of 60 students chosen — from among more than 1,000 applicants in 123 countries — to speak at the Global Changemakers summit in Zurich in 2019. The invitation covered the cost of the flight and a week’s stay in a hotel. He read about Zurich, what the weather would be like. Mora paid for Deng’s travel visa, helped him with the required forms.

But days before his trip, the Swiss Embassy in Nairobi denied his application. There was no explanation on the stamped document, just an X in box 9: “Your intention to leave” Switzerland, it said, “before the expiry of the visa could not be ascertained.” Determined, Mora gathered evidence of his intent to return to Kakuma so that he could file an appeal. She paid the fee and enlisted friends to translate several documents into the required French. But it was too late: The embassy couldn’t process the appeal before the conference started.

Bureaucratic processes, Deng was reminded once more, often strangle tantalizing opportunities. It’s difficult or impossible for refugees everywhere to travel outside their country of residence. Governments devise policies based on a fear: Once a refugee enters the country, he will stay there.

Deng was devastated. In his reaction Mora heard resignation born of familiarity with disappointment. But she heard something else, too: the conviction that he deserved better. “Being a refugee doesn’t make me a lesser being and I deserve opportunities to grow professionally and as a person just like anybody else,” he wrote in an email to those who had helped with his appeal. “However, I can’t let this kill my spirit and hope.”

Months later, Deng resolved to apply to college — his only ticket out of nowhere.

Applying to college is an act of imagining. You’re standing right here, but you envision yourself way over there, in another place, stepping into a new life.

This image resonated with Deng. A college acceptance, he knew, could mean stability, not having to worry about money, security, and basic needs each day. A degree could lead to graduate school, maybe to a job abroad. Maybe to asylum and citizenship. Maybe.

But the logistics of admissions are especially difficult for refugees. Students who have been displaced from their homes often leave behind high-school transcripts and other documents. They often lose contact with teachers who could write recommendations. They tend to lack an internet connection, access to testing centers, and a credit card with which to pay application fees. And there are few scholarships for refugees in the United States.

If Deng were a Kenyan citizen, he would have been eligible for loans and scholarships enabling him to enroll at a Kenyan college, if he got in. As a refugee, though, he couldn’t even travel outside the camp without a special pass. He must find a way, he decided, to get to the United States.

One day he connected with Asad Hussein, who had already made the leap. He was born and raised in Dadaab, another refugee camp in Kenya; his parents went there in 1991 after fleeing the war in their native Somalia. Hussein, a thoughtful writer, got a full ride to Princeton University, where he’s studying literature. For refugees, he believed, education serves as “a second kind of citizenship” where people can could excel on their own terms, unencumbered by bureaucratic restrictions.

The two young men struck up a friendship via WhatsApp. Deng had no college counselor, no one who understood the intricacies of the admissions and financial-aid process in the United States. So he relied on Hussein, who had received help applying to college. Hussein shared some pointers, explaining that most colleges had suspended their testing requirements because of the pandemic. It was good news for Deng, who was unable to take the SAT at the closest testing site, 800 kilometers away.

One day Deng read about the University of California at Berkeley and its program in peace and conflict studies. As he would write in one of his application essays, he wanted “to explore the psychology of the world of my childhood — I want to discover why there are so many conflicts in the world and what I can do to resolve them.” He imagined meeting diverse students, minoring in journalism, and writing for The Daily Californian. He saw a photo of the university’s famous Sather Gate, made of bronze and granite. He felt something. This is where I need to go.

Deng completed Berkeley’s application, indicating that he had met the UC system’s complicated course requirements. Because the UC requires applicants to self-report their grades, he didn’t need to send his transcript until later. He applied to three other UC campuses — and nowhere else.

The odds were long at Berkeley, which accepted just 9 percent of more than 17,000 international applicants last year. But it happened. Deng, one of 21,000 international applicants this year, received an acceptance. After getting the news, he messaged Hussein: “I’m in!” Hussein called and heard the excitement in his friend’s voice.

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John Thomas Muyumba for The Chronicle

Deng (standing) often gets around the refugee camp on the back of a motorcycle.

Deng still talked from time to time with his mother, who once told him he would travel far because he had kicked vigorously in her womb. He tweeted a tribute he knew she could not see: “Mom, we made it to UC Berkeley, Class of 2025! OMG!”

Days later, Hussein told him to check his financial-aid package and described how to do it. When Deng logged into his UC portal, he saw his estimated cost of attendance for one year: $67,550. Then he saw what the university was offering: $0. Confused, Deng sent a screenshot to Hussein, who was confused, too.

“Don’t freak out bro,” Hussein told Deng. “They will not ask you for money.”

Princeton had covered all of Hussein’s costs, and he believed that was how things worked for students with no means to pay. Deng believed it, too. After all, when he requested a waiver for the $80 application fee, Berkeley granted it. When asked on the application if he would like to be considered for financial aid, he said yes. When he requested a waiver for the $250 deposit fee, Berkeley granted that, too.

But then Hussein found the plainly stated fact online: Berkeley doesn’t offer need-based aid to international students, who are ineligible for federal and state aid. He felt embarrassed — like he, an insider at an Ivy League university, should have known. This just shows you, he thought, how complicated this machine is.

Applying to college is an act of imagining, but the technicalities are all too real. Deng hadn’t known that Berkeley is “need blind,” evaluating applicants without considering their ability to pay, because the university believes a student’s finances shouldn’t determine their admissibility. He didn’t know admissions officials have long debated the ethics of denying a student because they have no money versus admitting a student who has little chance of obtaining the resources to enroll.

Deng just knew he had submitted personal essays vividly describing his circumstances. Why let me in, he thought, if they knew I could not pay?

Deng still believed he would get to Berkeley. He just had to find a way.

In mid-April, a South-Sudanese-American student at Berkeley connected him with an admissions official, who passed along the email of a colleague in the financial-aid office and another in the international office. Deng, taking this as encouragement, used his brand-new Berkeley email account to write to both of them, explaining his situation.

Mora, his friend in Spain, worried he was too confident that Berkeley would come through with funding. She urged him to search for outside scholarships: “Nhial, you need to get your ass on it!”

He emailed Polly Akhurst, co-founder and co-executive director of Amala, a nonprofit group in the United Kingdom that developed a high-school curriculum and short courses for young refugees throughout the world, which he had taken at Kakuma in 2018.

Deng’s drive and communication skill had impressed Akhurst, who saw his roadblock at Berkeley as an issue of global importance. She saw him as an incarnation of an important fact: Many young refugees crave the full flower of higher education. Though they might have great financial need, many didn’t want purely utilitarian training. They wanted liberal-arts courses, to make sense of their identities, their place in a world that subjects them to countless policies and restrictions.

Applying to college is an act of imagining, but the technicalities are all too real.

Akhurst co-wrote a glowing letter about Deng, urging Berkeley to make an exception and consider him for a full scholarship: “In raising up Nhial, we will help to lift others.” She also contacted Niki Dinsdale.

Dinsdale was a college adviser at United World College of South East Asia, a K-12 school in Singapore, who as a volunteer helped Amala students find a postsecondary path. After seeing Deng’s LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, she emailed her colleague Joan Liu, a college adviser who on her own time had helped low-income students throughout the world find a seat in college.

The advisers, who knew the inner workings of the international admissions machine, looked over Deng’s record of community service and speaking experience. They both saw the same thing: a leader bursting with potential.

But Deng didn’t have a flawless academic record. His acceptance at Berkeley was a testament to its holistic admissions process, which takes many factors into account. The university tells prospective students their achievements “will be considered in the context of the opportunities an applicant has had, any hardships or unusual circumstances the applicant has faced, and the ways in which they have responded.”

He surely wouldn’t have been admitted based on his high-school performance alone. His transcript, on which his grades were entered in ink, revealed his struggles after he had to start working in his junior year. He got several Cs and Ds.

Did those marks really capture his abilities and reflect his potential? Liu, who had read his insightful essays, didn’t think so. But she and Dinsdale wanted to know more, so they asked Deng to take the Duolingo English Test, an online-only exam that students can access at any time, anywhere in the world, to prove their language proficiency to colleges. After getting a fee waiver, he took the test in about an hour, scoring a 135 out of a possible 160, equivalent to 115 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. That’s on par with the scores of international students who get into the most-selective U.S. colleges.

“Let’s second-chance this kid,” Liu said.

During a Zoom meeting with Deng in late April, Dinsdale and Liu explained their role to him. He had never heard of college counselors. They would help him find another college, they told him, but it wouldn’t be easy to find full funding. Many institutions had promised all their grants and scholarships.

Dinsdale and Liu encouraged him to move on from Berkeley. But he couldn’t. Each day he was certain he was about to connect with someone who would fix things. He wrote to the financial-aid office, which directed him to the international office. The international office sent him links to private scholarships, but most of the deadlines had passed.

On April 22, Deng wrote to Silvia Marquez, Berkeley’s associate director of financial aid, for the second time, asking if there were any way to get “special consideration,” if there were any scholarships, grants, or loans available. When he didn’t hear back for a week, he figured it meant that the university was working something out.

While other applicants in Deng’s situation might have read between the lines, a refugee who had learned how to solve problems on his own was doing what he had always done, putting faith in his own resourcefulness and persuasion, trusting in the same optimism he had needed to endure, thrive, and push past obstacles. Also, he hadn’t heard a firm no.

On April 29, Liu emailed Berkeley, saying Deng needed one: “He is holding on to hope, and we need him to now let go.” Later that day, Marquez, in the middle of an incredibly busy stretch for financial-aid officials, wrote back to Deng. She thanked him for describing his financial circumstances, acknowledging that it wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The system wasn’t built to budge, though. Despite his “proven abilities,” Marquez explained, Berkeley couldn’t make an exception for him because its aid policies, established by the system’s Board of Regents, prohibit need-based aid to out-of-state and international students. “I encourage you to consider any other institutions who have provided you financial support so that you can continue on your educational journey,” she wrote. “We wish you the very best.”

After reading the email, Deng flopped on his bed and stared at the sheet-metal ceiling. He felt paralyzed. He wouldn’t take a selfie at Sather Gate as he had planned. On a call later, Liu could hear him trying not to cry. He had no other options. Without funding, there was no educational journey. There was just oblivion.

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John Thomas Muyumba for The Chronicle

Headed out for a run, Deng checks his phone — his connection to the world beyond Kakuma.

Time was working against Deng. After May 1 — the date on which students must commit to selective colleges — his counselors figured they had only days to snag a last-minute offer. They believed his best shot would be a partial scholarship from a private college, somewhere in the world. They would then have to raise money to cover the sizable gap.

Dinsdale and Liu considered American institutions with campuses in Qatar, but they would require 18 months of bank statements. Deng made $110 a month working at a computer center, plus small fees for virtual speaking engagements. He sent much of his earnings to his mother, living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. As far as he knew, neither of his parents ever had a bank account.

The counselors contacted universities in the Netherlands, only to learn that they require a TOEFL score, which Deng lacked. He would need to make a long bus trip to Nairobi and pay $200 just to take the exam.

They heard about the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, or DAFI, a robust scholarship program that has helped nearly 20,000 refugees pay for college since 1992. But students attending U.S. colleges aren’t eligible.

Though the United States seemed like the best bet, Dinsdale and Liu knew that even if he were to get a full scholarship, he might not get an F-1 visa, which international students need to enter the country. Applicants must prove their intent to return to their home country after completing their studies. They must do so by describing ties, such as family and employment opportunities, that bind them to their country of residence. But most refugees, by definition, lack such ties.

In early May, Liu posted a message about Deng’s plight in several Facebook groups for admissions officers all over the world. She urged colleges with funds to spare to consider him: “Your support and interest in Nhial can make a destiny bending impact on his life and on your institution.”

Many people who commented wished Deng well, but some did not. One questioned his ignorance of Berkeley’s aid policies: “How extraordinary is any student who missed something so basic … ?” This was exactly what you would ask if you believed that mastery of the admissions process was proof of an applicant’s inherent worthiness — and not merely of the privileges he’s had.

A handful of colleges expressed interest. Liu sent them Deng’s materials online. Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, agreed to interview him via Zoom. During the meeting, Deng talked with the top enrollment official and a professor from Kenya, who spoke Swahili with him and promised to take him to dinner.

Cornell offered Deng a full-tuition scholarship, leaving him with an annual gap of $12,000 to $14,000 that fund raising would have to fill. A week into May, this was his best option. His only option, really. Then, just as he was picturing life in a tiny Midwestern city, another opportunity surfaced.

Deng’s prospects changed because of a few simple questions. While researching his options, Dinsdale emailed Moustafa Ezz, director of international recruitment and strategy at Huron University College, in Ontario, Canada. They had presented together at conferences, and she knew he shared her interest in expanding educational opportunities for refugees.

Dinsdale explained in her message that she was trying to understand the bureaucratic hurdles Deng could encounter in Canada. She was doing her homework, gathering expert advice, as college counselors do often. “Can you let me know,” she wrote, “what it might be like for a young man like this to apply to a Canadian institution?” Would he need a minimum amount of money in the bank? A passport? Other documents?

In a follow-up email, Dinsdale shared Deng’s profile with Ezz. She didn’t ask him to consider him for admission. Still, Ezz, a native of Egypt who had graduated from Huron, was moved by the young man’s story, the strength of his essays, his leadership experience. After asking Dinsdale to call him, they discussed Deng, his context, and needs.

Then Ezz forwarded an email to Barry Craig, Huron’s president, describing the young man’s situation. Ezz typed a question: “Do you think we can help?”

When Craig arrived five years ago, he was struck by the homogeneity of the small liberal-arts college, affiliated with the University of Western Ontario. The campus had long attracted affluent students from the Toronto area. So the new president led a successful push to diversify the college, seeking to expose students to a wide variety of cultures. The university enrolled more and more international students (in the fall of 2020, 27 percent of Huron’s incoming class came from other countries). The president met with an international student almost every day.

Craig, a first-generation college student, had thought hard about the university’s responsibility to serve the public good by supporting disadvantaged students, even if it meant stretching the budget. And he had thought hard about what his own privilege obligated him to do for others. He and his wife, Sara McDonald, a professor at Huron, established and financed several scholarships for underrepresented students at the university.

After Craig read about Deng, the university scheduled an official interview. Liu encouraged Deng to prepare. He read all he could about Huron, jotting down notes. Hours before the meeting, he felt anxious, knowing he would be speaking with a college president. He calmed himself down by calling a friend and eating lunch at his favorite restaurant.

When the meeting began, Deng saw Craig, in a jacket and tie, with a bookcase in the background. He braced for the first question, hoping to convey that the college and its culture aligned with his aspirations.

Deng didn’t know that it wasn’t really an interview. He didn’t know that six minutes after receiving Ezz’s email asking if Huron could help Deng, Craig had written back “Yeah, let’s do this.”

Looking into the camera, Craig said, with a slight grin, “So, uh, we had an idea …”

Then, with Ezz, Dinsdale, and Liu looking on, Craig told Deng that Huron would admit him and provide him with a free education. Tuition. Living expenses. A computer. A winter coat. A paid internship. Anything he needed. He would graduate without any debt. “This morning, my friend, congratulations,” Craig said. “I want to offer this to you.”

Deng couldn’t speak. He smiled widely, looked up at the ceiling, and put his palms together. He then described the importance of diversity and how he wanted to serve the community. “I don’t know how this happened,” he said. “Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”

Craig promised to take him to breakfast the day he arrived in Canada. He promised to give him his personal cell number, which he gives to all international students: “What I’ve seen in you is a superstar, somebody who has the heart.” This wasn’t charity. By enrolling Deng, he believed he would drop “a bombshell of leadership” on the campus.

Ezz, who offered to be Deng’s mentor, answered his questions, talked about faculty advising, research and volunteer opportunities. Then he described the student-visa application process — a reminder that Deng had more crucial barriers to clear.

But that was a worry for tomorrow. After the meeting, Deng flipped on his Bluetooth speaker and sang along with Don Moen, the Christian singer. He sang until his voice gave out.

“God will make a way
Where there seems to be no way.”

Paperwork. A mountain of it stood between Deng and another life. To enter Canada, he would need a visa and study permit. To get those he would need a valid passport or a Convention Travel Document, or CTD. He had neither.

So Deng and his counselors discussed the next step, trading messages with Alan Davidson, executive director of KenSAP, a nonprofit group that helps high-achieving Kenyan students enroll at colleges in the United States. The lawyer-turned-college-counselor, who had been part of Deng’s pro bono team all spring, researched the best plan for getting him into Canada. International students can have a harder time obtaining a student visa there than they do in the United States.

Both countries required visa applicants to prove their intent to return home after finishing their studies. But where, for Deng, was home? Not South Sudan, where he had never been. Not Ethiopia, which he had fled. Not Kenya, where he lacked citizenship. The Kakuma Refugee Camp? The Kenyan government said this spring that it would shut the camp down in 2022. (UNHCR has said that won’t happen.)

Deng’s advisers weighed the potential upside of a South Sudanese passport: It would give him a home country, at least on paper, which might help him get a visa. But several experts advised them that an 11th-hour passport would look suspicious. Also, international students have options for becoming permanent residents in Canada after finishing college. As a refugee, the counselors learned, Deng would have a better shot at citizenship with a CTD.

But Deng’s nationality and date of birth were still wrong in the refugee agency’s database, which the Kenyan government uses to issue CTDs. He didn’t like carrying documents reminding him that he lacked control over his own identity.

One day he messaged Liu to say he was going to apply for a South Sudanese passport instead of a CTD.

“Nhial,” she wrote back, “don’t do that yet.”

“If I use the CTD, I will have to maintain the same details going forward, which I don’t want.”

“Pls do not do anything until we advise you to.”

“Okay, I will wait.”

“We need this to benefit you in the long run.”

“Yes I understand.”

“Don’t do anything rash.”

“Got it.”

“We have come so far. You are almost there.”

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John Thomas Muyunga for The Chronicle

Deng (left), helps Everest Minani, a Congolese refugee, with the college-application process.

When people met Nhial Deng, what did they see? An outlier, one exceptional case? Or a walking reminder of the talents of many other refugees?

In April, as Deng’s ad hoc advising team was drafting a letter about him, Davidson, at KenSAP, objected to the phrase “once in a lifetime student.” Yes, the young man’s curiosity, leadership, maturity, and networking skills impressed him. But Davidson had recently advised another refugee student just as impressive. Tens of thousands of refugees around the world, he believes, can succeed in college.

What governments and postsecondary institutions owe refugees is an urgent question. Forced displacement has doubled over the past decade, according to UNHCR data. At the end of 2019 there were nearly 26 million refugees worldwide, about half of whom were under the age of 18. Without more educational opportunities, young people living, perhaps permanently, in other countries will continue to find themselves unable to improve their circumstances.

Governments devise policies based on a fear: Once a refugee enters the country, he will stay there.

Though just 3 percent of young refugees have access to higher education, UNHCR and its partners want to increase that proportion to 15 percent, or about 500,000 people, by 2030. Meeting that goal will depend on many policy decisions. The Trump administration drastically reduced the number of refugees entering the United States, capping it at a record-low 15,000 a year. President Biden, who was criticized for not raising the cap to 62,500 until May, has said he intends to double it next year.

Some college leaders want to help bring more refugees into the country. In May, Deng spoke at a virtual meeting held by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of more than 500 college leaders who intend to present the Biden administration with a plan for rapidly increasing the number of young refugees enrolled at U.S. institutions. It would require, among other things, an immense expansion of college advising, new sources of funding, and adjustments to the admissions process. Otherwise, the next Nhial Deng probably won’t end up bringing his talents to the States.

What had Berkeley’s admissions office seen in him? Something powerful, it would seem. By admitting the refugee, two years out of high school, with a mixed-bag transcript, the university validated the promise of refugees with unconventional academic records. But its inability to offer him substantial aid underscored how institutional policies and limited resources can undermine successful international applicants who lack money.

After getting the offer from Huron, Deng logged into his UC portal for the first time in a week and saw something surprising listed under “Financial Aid & Scholarships”: $25,000 in gift aid, reducing his net cost of attendance to $42,500. This baffled Deng, who had received no email about a change in his aid package.

It was a mystery the university later declined to discuss, and, really, it didn’t matter. The last-minute grant didn’t make the university any more affordable.

Still, it was a sign that someone at Berkeley was thinking about Deng this spring. Olufemi (Femi) Ogundele, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management there, couldn’t give him a full-ride scholarship. But he ended up giving him something unexpected: a friend.

In April, Ogundele, a first-generation Nigerian-American and a widely respected college-access advocate, got in touch with Buay Tut, a former colleague living in Nairobi, to tell him about Deng’s situation. Tut, who considers Ogundele a mentor, offered to raise money for Deng, whom he called the next day while taking a walk. He became so absorbed in his story that he got lost in the city’s vast arboretum.

Soon Tut joined the unofficial advising team, in charge of a GoFundMe page for Deng. Sometimes he called the refugee just to ask, “How was your day? What can I help you with?” This gave Deng faith and motivation.

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Courtesy of Nhial Deng

Buay Tut (left) and Nhial Deng

Tut understood that the refugee’s story spoke to larger problems: Higher education is the primary means of changing one’s life, but it’s widely inaccessible; admissions evaluations often don’t line up with financial-aid policies. He also understood that Deng’s story echoed many other people’s stories. Such as his own.

Born in what’s now South Sudan, Tut lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for five years before resettling in the United States with his family. He graduated from St. Olaf College in 2014 and later worked with Ogundele in Stanford University’s admissions office. After getting a master’s degree from Harvard University, in 2020, he moved back to Africa and started a college-advising program for high-achieving refugee students.

In mid-May, Tut traveled to Kakuma. He went there to spend some time with Deng as well as to interview young refugees who had applied for a spot in the college-advising program. The vast majority of young refugees don’t finish high school, and most of those who do reach a dead end after getting their diploma, with no way of getting to college.

But many come from families who value education. One day Deng and Tut walked around the camp with a Harvard student who had grown up there; residents greeted him as if he were a returning king. That week, many people attended an emotional ceremony for young men who were finishing eighth grade. One by one each mother stood and offered encouragement. Older men encouraged the graduates, too, describing how when they were the same age, they had to go to war. Later, everyone danced and enjoyed a feast of stews and spongy flatbread.

Tut and Deng spent a couple days together. After a heavy rain flooded the camp, which has no drainage system, they walked together through a foot of water. They discussed their hopes for a renaissance in Africa. The younger refugee told the older one he wanted to bring knowledge back to the continent and help solve societal problems. They saw themselves in each other.

Deng told Tut he would soon have to go to Nairobi to get the document he needed to get to Huron. First he would have to apply for a Movement Pass to travel throughout Kenya. He would also have to ask UNHCR for money for his flight.

But he would have nowhere to stay. So he asked Tut if he could crash with him.

“Wherever I am,” Tut told him, “you’ll always have a place.”

Days later, Deng met Tut at the airport in Nairobi. As they rode in an Uber, the young refugee absorbed the city’s commotion and noise. At the camp he often felt his surroundings confining even his thoughts. But in the capital of 4.7 million people, where the modern Britam Tower reached higher than all the other buildings in Kenya, his mind roamed.

Deng possessed a bright personality, and, as Liu had perceived, well-honed political acumen as well. He had a knack for connecting with important people.

Before arriving in Nairobi, he had secured an appointment there with the High Commission of Canada in Kenya. He showed up wearing a custom-made bright-red kitenge jacket. He had come to talk about refugee rights and advocacy with David Da Silva, the acting high commissioner. But near the end of their chat, he mentioned his acceptance at Huron and forthcoming visa application, as his advisers had encouraged him to do. He left with assurances that the commission would keep an eye on his application.

Da Silva posed for a selfie with Deng, wearing a Covid mask adorned with Canada’s national symbol — a red maple leaf. Later, Da Silva tweeted the photo, calling Deng “my inspiring friend.” Huron, he wrote, “will benefit so much from his presence.” It didn’t guarantee a visa, but it sure was a good sign.

For a few days, Deng tasted the freedom others took for granted. He ate at KFC. Saw an action movie in a theater. Went for a run in the park.

Deng knew he had to get back to Kakuma, but Tut convinced him to stay one more night for a party at his apartment. He didn’t mention the party was for him.

Savoring the warmth of the surprise, Deng beamed as he traded hugs with Tut’s friends and posed for group photos. When someone handed him a champagne bottle, he went to the balcony and popped off the cork. He declined even a sip.

Tut offered encouraging words and put his arm around Deng, who felt the embrace of an older brother. A cake appeared. White frosting, topped with a replica of Huron’s official seal. “Congratulations, Nhial,” it said in the university’s red and black.

Later, Deng shared a photo of the cake on social media, thanking his patchwork team of devoted advisers: “Celebrating what is to be an incredible journey.”

He was close to college, but, with one big step remaining, still so far away.

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John Thomas Muyumba for The Chronicle

Deng gives a speech after completing a digital-media course provided to him and other young refugees by the nonprofit FilmAid.

Deng left Nairobi on a bus. Though UNHCR gave him enough money for two plane tickets, he had spent the other half going out in the city. He would have plenty of time to think during the 24-hour trip.

Heading north in the cramped coach, Deng saw the lush green slopes of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Nakuru reflecting the sky. He wondered how it would feel moving from Kenya to Canada, where he planned to major in global rights studies. He wanted to work in the advocacy field, amplifying the voices of refugees. He could also see himself telling people’s stories as a journalist.

Years ago his father had said that Deng would find him through the radio. But finding each other hadn’t been so hard. Seeing each other, though, would be just about impossible any time soon. His father was living in Ethiopia, and neither of them had the money for a plane ticket or the long bus trip. Deng’s CTD would not allow him to travel to his country of origin.

They called each other now and then. When Deng told him he was going to Canada for college, a joyful sound burst from his phone: “You will become a good journalist!” Deng still liked to imagine his own voice coming through his father’s beloved radio, the voice of someone who had achieved something, who mattered.

After returning to Kakuma, Deng received a certificate for completing an intensive media entrepreneurship course offered by FilmAid, a nonprofit group that teaches young refugees the basics of digital media, filmmaking, journalism, and photography. He shared a picture of himself in a cap and gown, holding the certificate, on social media. He wrote a caption he knew his father wouldn’t see: “Dad … I’m now ready to tell my story in my own voice.”

In early June, Deng plowed through his remaining paperwork, careful to avoid any mistakes. He knew he must enter everything correctly on his visa application or else the Canadian government might not let him in.

Deng would need to prove he had sufficient funds (a minimum of $10,000) to support himself in college. This would help demonstrate his intent to leave the country after completing his studies. (Students often get denied when they have too little money in their accounts.) He had more than the required amount thanks to the GoFundMe campaign. One donor had pledged to pay for his $1,500 flight.

He also needed a letter of support from Huron. After seeing that the first draft included his actual date of birth, his advisers asked the university to change it to match the date of birth on his CTD. The letter said Deng wanted to “go back to South Sudan,” but his CTD stated, correctly, that he was born in Ethiopia. So his advisers asked Huron to change it to “go back to East Africa.” They wanted to ensure there were no discrepancies that could jeopardize his visa — even though some details on his documents were wrong.

“Who is looking over your visa application?” Liu wrote to Deng in late May. “Who is doublechecking it?”

“No one,” he replied.

“Omg. Nhial let one of us look at it before you submit it pls.”

Huron connected Deng with an immigration consultant who reviewed the application. Deng submitted the form in early June, feeling excited and anxious. But the next day, he was informed that his application wouldn’t be processed until he submitted fingerprints and a photo to the Canadian embassy. He would need a medical exam, too. So he went all the way back to Nairobi in mid-June and took care of each last requirement.

Deng had done all he could. Now he would have to wait.

The refugee knew his fate would hinge on the judgment of one visa officer. And he knew the verdict might not come for at least three months. The Canadian government couldn’t guarantee that applications submitted after May 15 would be processed before the fall semester begins. Though Huron assured him it would accommodate his late arrival, he could miss orientation and weeks of classes.

Still, if all went smoothly, the rising freshman would pack up in August and free himself, after 11 years, from the camp. But it wouldn’t be his first escape.

Nhial Deng, displaced and alone, had been escaping oblivion all his life. The oblivion of doubt, despair, and resignation. Of idleness and ignorance. Of being unseen and unheard, a ghost on the Lethe who forgets the life he knew before and who is forgotten by the world.

Deng escaped by reading, thinking, and remembering that one often must ask for help to get it. By making friends all over and making peace in small ways. He escaped by listening to others and speaking up for them. By telling his story, transforming his vulnerability into a kind of steel.

Leaving Kakuma would be complicated. If Deng reached Canada, he would see icicles clinging to rooftops, hear the Sunday bells ringing in the campus chapel, and, perhaps, taste the cafeteria’s sausage-and-broccolini ravioli. He would have personal space he had never known. He would be a minority student among many wealthy white students who had never thought twice about buying a $2 Coke.

Deng would no longer see the faces of neighbors old and young, smell their dinners cooking, hear them laughing and arguing and snoring through makeshift walls. He would no longer run through the hot fields with his old friend Gatbel Lul, who hoped to study public health but wasn’t sure how to get to college, who still wore the beautiful black sneakers Deng gave him two birthdays ago, who called him “the best guy I ever met in my life.”

Nhial Deng would part with his second family just as he parted with his first. But he had learned that there were always new families to create.

One day in late spring, a Huron student named Isaac Wani wrote to him: “Congratulations, Nhial! Hope to see you soon in the fall.” Wani grew up in Uganda, but he, too, was a South Sudanese refugee. Deng was glad to hear that he wouldn’t be the only one.

Later, the young men traded texts, discussing their backgrounds and majors. Deng asked about London, Ontario, where Huron is located. Wani called it beautiful, diverse, and friendly: “You’ll definitely like it.”

After 40 minutes of chatting, Wani wrote, “All right, bro. Don’t hesitate to ask me anything you want to know. We’ll talk soon!”

“Thank you, bro!” Deng replied. “It was great talking to you. Let’s keep in touch!”

“We’ll always be in touch bro.”

Deng felt it, the first tug of friendship, pulling him toward a new home.

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