November 24, 2016: A Special Thanksgiving Message from Valentino

See original news letter here.

Dear Friend, 

Like I do each year I wanted to take time to wish you a very happy thanksgiving and to thank you for giving hundreds of youth access to education. At this time, I am writing from Marial Bai. It is a beautiful day in the middle of the dry season here on campus. If I were sitting at the dinner table with you today, these are some of the things I would mention being thankful for:

First, I am thankful that all of the students and staff at Marial Bai Secondary School are healthy and alive. The students have everything they need to learn and become the future leaders of South Sudan. It is a miracle that the civil war has not touched our slice of heaven in Marial Bai. Several political developments in 2016--such as the introduction of a U.N. Security Council resolution to support an arms embargo for South Sudan–-make me optimistic that the international community may not have turned a blind eye to the atrocities. I am hopeful that the international goodwill that South Sudan enjoyed at Independence will return again soon. Qualified South Sudanese in the diaspora would be eager return to rebuild the nation as conditions improve. We will be hitting 'reset' after tens of thousands of lives have been lost, after three million people have been displaced and after almost half the population has met the face of famine. I pray to God every day that the fighting will end and we South Sudanese can as a nation rebuild together. 

Second, I am thankful to America, a country known for taking in “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lady Liberty gave me refuge 15 years ago, which meant the chance to start a new life as a resettled refugee--and eventually--to become a proud citizen. I have been able to, with the help of Mary Williams and Dave Eggers, tell my story to millions of people around the world. I also met wonderful generous people in America, like the DeBartolo family, who supported my dream to open a secondary school in my hometown from the time it was only a dream. I am happy to say that Marial Bai Secondary School is now the best-ranked school of its kind in South Sudan, enjoying its eighth academic year. Coming to America changed my life, and the lives of countless youth eager to get a quality education--and for this I cannot be more thankful. This November, I voted from abroad in a very important U.S. election. In South Sudan and countless other countries around the world, a non-violent concession like the one we saw in America is rare. While there remain deep divisions among the American electorate, the tradition of peaceful democratic transitions is something to be thankful for. 

Last, I am thankful for meeting some of the people who sustain the VAD Foundation, amplify the Foundation’s message, and are eager to help us grow. Let me mention a few briefly. In August, I was asked to speak to and later mentor Africa’s next generation of leaders through the U.S. government-funded Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). I am happy to say that there was a cohort of ten young South Sudanese leaders who attended the convening, and several of them will be moving on to fellowships in America. On October 23rd, I returned to Nairobi after spending a month in my adopted homeland: I was in N.Y.C. for the final Clinton Global Initiative Members Meeting and for a refugees-themed “Making Media Work” workshop hosted by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. I went ‘Facebook Live’ with my long-time friend Nicolas Kristof (whose media coverage over the years has brought our story to the attention of many of our current long-time supporters). In San Francisco, I spoke at the World Affairs Council about the first five years of nationhood in South Sudan. In Washington, D.C., I attended USAID’s first-ever Diaspora Conference. I also met several of our supporters and on each occasion, I felt loved and right at home--even when it was meeting for the first time. I am always so happy to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones.

So, Happy Thanksgiving! I wish you and your loved ones well on this special day. In closing, I would like to extend an invitation...because someday South Sudan will again be safe for traveling. I will invite you to come with me to break bread in my house. I will also show you the schools that you helped build. Together we will sit with the staff under the shade tree and we will recount the first years of the Marial Bai Secondary School, of South Sudan as a new nation. We will not spare the details about all of the ups and the downs. We will remember enrollment days when we had to turn away hundreds of youth because we did not have enough slots. We will remember the students who slipped their meals over the school fence so that the less fortunate might not starve. We will remember the joy in the village the day we opened our doors to our first class. We will remember the names of MBSS's star soccer players. Then we will see that MBSS graduate as an adult, and she will say to the younger generation, “I was able to get an education with the help of others and you will get an education too because I am going to help you.” And that we shall all be thankful for. 


Valentino Deng

Yvonne Chen