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A Decade After Fleeing War, This Refugee Now Has an MBE From the Queen

Akuja de Garang was just 6 years old when civil war broke out in South Sudan.

“I can still remember the day my mum, Anna, came bursting through the front door in tears, having deserted our car in the street,” Garang told Kim Willis from The Sun. "She’d spotted men with guns in our hometown of Juba, South Sudan, and had scrambled through bushes to tell me and my older brother, Ajang, then 12, that we needed to leave immediately.”

Garang was still in school when the fighting began — despite pressure for girls to marry young, her mother insisted she get educated. It took two years of war before her mother realised they couldn’t remain safe at home. Garang was 8 when they left — and they spent the next decade on the move, attempting to avoid the violence.

After failing to settle in Khartoum, the family moved to Egypt, and from there they applied for asylum in the UK. Her father had died of cancer years previously, and her mother was recovering from a stroke — but Garang was able to use her education to find work in an office.

It wasn’t until Garang was 18 years old that her family was finally granted asylum. Her new home was to be in Bristol, England, after Britain accepted their application for protection. Finally, she was safe, and within a few months, had become fluent in English.

But Garang was eager to return to South Sudan to help her home country heal — and to fight for the girls who had had their education devastated by conflict.

"After getting a degree in African studies and a master’s in international development at SOAS University of London, I spent over a year working for UNICEF in Israel, and then in Nairobi, assessing the impact of conflict on children,” she said. "So when I was offered a post in Rumbek back in Sudan, I couldn’t say no.”

So in 2004, Garang went home. South Sudan has been independent since 2011, and two years later Garang began work for the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) initiative, a project funded by UK aid to put girls back in school.

Garang is now the program leader and has helped construct a system from nothing that currently helps over 180,000 girls remain in primary and secondary education, using cash transfers from the UK government. So far more than 240,000 girls and 300,000 boys have also benefited from broader GESS support initiatives.

"I meet with education ministers, local communities, and parents to promote the value of a female education,” she said. "I also visit schools, and it’s amazing seeing how girls’ confidence soars when time and money is invested in their future. I still come back to the UK when I can.”

Now, her incredible work has been recognised at the very highest level.

Garang was awarded the Member of the Order of British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty the Queen after making the New Year’s Honours List last year. Her community work has reached over a million people through families and communities, and she’s described the recognition as “wonderful.” But not for her — she says it’s more important for the “GESS programme and the people of South Sudan.”

In an interview with Women & Girls, Garang revealed her hopes after receiving the prestigious royal award.

“For the girls, I’m hoping this will be a story that they will aspire to,” she said. “For me, it’s just putting the country in a different light. I think that this would be a different story and one that hasn’t been told before – of a South Sudanese winning an MBE.”