Penn Yan Middle School students had a unique opportunity last week to hear a first-hand account of survival, perseverance and triumph when Sebastian Maroundit came to speak at the school.

Seventh grade students have been reading a novel, A Long Walk to Water, based on the epic experience that is Maroundit’s story. The Penn Yan Rotary Club arranged his visit, and presented him with a donation of $250 for his foundation.

In South Sudan in 1988, 9-year-old Maroundit was playing outside with his 5-year-old sister, when they heard people yelling, “Militia!” It was the first time he had seen a man with a gun. Within minutes, his sister was dead of a gunshot wound, and his mother was telling him to run for his life.

He and other young boys from the village ran and walked barefoot for three months before reaching Ethiopia. After four years as refugees there, they were forced to flee war again, and spent another year walking across the desert and crossing a crocodile-infested river to reach Kenya. There, at age 14 in 1993, he was able to attend school for the first time in his life. He was one of the 10,000 boys who have been referred to as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”

In 2001, he was among 3,800 boys who were chosen to travel to America. Although he thought America was a small community in Italy, he agreed to go, as long as he would be allowed to return to South Sudan to see his mother.

Moving to America was an eye-opening experience, he said. “The first thing I had to learn here at 22 years old was to turn the lights on and off,” he said with a wide smile.

There were many other lessons over the years after he eventually settled in Rochester. His first job was in housekeeping. Now, after completing his education through Monroe Community College and SUNY Brockport, he’s still struck by the fact that someone who was born in this country now cleans the places where he lives and works.

Maroundit has become a U.S. citizen, and is founder and president of Building Minds in South Sudan, a foundation that is bringing educational opportunities to children in Sudan. The foundation has built a school that is attended by 805 children, including 304 girls. He is working to help change the cultural standards of his homeland that treat girls as property, and do not encourage girls to become educated.

In 2007, he returned to his village to see his mother for the first time in 18 years.

Recalling the plight of a young polio survivor who walks more than 3 1/2 miles to school on her knees, he said, “Thank God I came to the U.S. to understand the beauty of educating girls.”

That young girl told him, “Education is my future.” She knows she would have no “value” to be married through the culture in which girls to be wed are traded for livestock.

“The first person who will tell you education is good for you is your mother,” he said, pointing out the irony that his own mother is uneducated, while her brother now lectures in the United Kingdom.

His next project is to build a school exclusively for girls.  Other projects supported by the foundation include video conferencing to train teachers, and supplies and technology for the schools.

Judy Schwartz, who accompanied Maroundit, is an area teacher who traveled to Sudan in 2010 to work with students there. She described the schools: each class met under a tree in conditions where temperatures reached 110 degrees. There is no water and no lunch. The children use their fingers as pencils and the dirt on the ground as their paper.

Middle School Principal Kelley Johnson said Maroundit’s talk was an opportunity to help the middle school students become aware of the human strength the boys demonstrated in pushing through their hardships.

For more information about Maroundit and Building Minds in South Sudan, visit Building Minds in South Sudan

or contact
Building Minds in South Sudan
5880 Pittsford-Palmyra Road
Pittsford, New York 14534-2444