When Adit “Elizabeth” Abit was six-years old, the Sudanese Civil War forced her to flee Panyangor, a village in what is now South Sudan. The recent UBC graduate spent much of her childhood seeking safety.
“I spent most of the time walking from place to place, village to village, camp to camp,” she said of the five years before her family finally settled in a Sudanese refugee camp bordering Uganda.
There, Abit was tasked with guarding their unlocked house while her mother barred her from going to the local school her older brother attended.
“My brother would come and say ‘A, B, C, D,’” Abit recalled. “I didn’t even know what was ‘A, B, C, D’ and I’d feel bad because students would mock me.”
Abit reasoned that without a house and family possessions to look after, nothing could prevent her from going to school. At age nine, she issued an ultimatum her mother couldn’t refuse.
“I told my mom, ‘Mom, you know what I will do if you don’t let me go to school? I will burn the house,’” she said.
After completing primary school, Abit earned a place at a Kenyan boarding school hoping to secure a scholarship from World University Service of Canada, a non-profit organisation that funds higher education to Canadian universities for students from developing countries.
While she would eventually achieve her dream of a WUSC scholarship, her boarding school years were not free from trauma. In her final year of high school, Abit was crossing the border between Kenya and Sudan when the car she was in came under attack. Roadside bandits opened fire on the vehicle, killing the woman sitting next to her, she recalled.
“I would say I was lucky because I was shot in the arm,” Abit said.
Still, Abit was determined to return to school. She made it back in time to complete her exams while maintaining a positive outlook on life.
“I’m very grateful for the experience I had [at UBC],” Abit said, noting that her academic program helped answer questions that she’d had since childhood.
“Because I had been affected by war from childhood, I grew up so passionate about solutions to war,” she said, pointing to interdisciplinary nature of her studies which helped her understand war and poverty from multiple perspectives.
One class in particular, the global politics course taught by Allen Sens, left a lingering question in her mind — How does one get the courage to put knowledge into practice?
Abit’s answer came last winter when she began efforts to launch a youth empowerment program in South Sudan. “People would tell me, … ‘This is too much. It’s too big,” Abit recalled. “But what I actually would tell them [was], 'It’s big, but you and I are bigger.'”
Abit believes that to end the cycle of violence in South Sudan, which has been plagued by internal conflict since it gained independence four years ago, individuals must take charge of improving their communities.
“People see government as something that can make everything workable and successful,” she said of her compatriots. “But how can you make them understand … that change within society is your own responsibility?”
She chose to focus on supporting South-Sudanese youth, who she believes are most likely to end up either taking up arms or becoming refugees. Abit said her organization, South Sudanese International Youth Ambassadors, will foster a diverse team of young people based in South Sudan and Kenya equipped to identify and address the needs of their communities.
“These ambassadors will come from all walks of life, all communities, any nationalities,” said Abit, adding that she would like to find a role for UBC students to become involved as well.
To help Abit’s goal of raising $50,000 to open a resource centre in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, UBC charity event organizer Generocksity is donating ticket revenue from an upcoming party to Abit’s group. The event is taking place at 8 p.m. October 17 at the Fortune Sound Club.
Abit’s second objective for SSIYA comes from her appreciation of UBC’s libraries. Through the “Book Project,” she hopes to open a library in a South Sudanese primary school within the next 12 months, giving children there the chance to find their unique interests by learning about the world through a diverse set of books.
Abit’s proudest accomplishment with SSIYA to date was an International Day of Peace celebration last month featuring guest speakers discussing the role of youth in South Sudan.
“The best thing is getting the message out,” said Abit. “We are here, this is what we’re doing.”