Valentino's TedX Talk

How many of you are below the age of 16? [Pause for crowd] Wow. And how many of you are over the age of 60? [Pause] Everybody.

16 is the average age of some of our global citizens in the developing world. Imagine what you were doing when you were 16 years old. If you are American, maybe you had your first car. If you are German, you were probably having your first beer, without your parents. Probably a Berliner beer – I got to know one yesterday. Maybe you had your first date or your first job or looking into universities.

In South Sudan less than 1% of girls attend high school. Only 5% of high school age students are enrolled in secondary schools. Only 27% of adults can read and write. Just imagine.

When I established a high school in South Sudan nearly 7 years ago, it was the first secondary school for hundreds of miles. I did that because of my experience and knowledge in the issues that our students face and the struggles I had to go through myself before coming to America. Today, that school is home to 420 students and 25 staff and teachers. But, I did not do it alone. I did this along with a group of people: my friends, my teams and my colleagues. We aimed to provide access to quality education. We aimed to provide opportunities to people looking to invest in infrastructure development, which is a key catalyst to doing many other things in the developing world. We also aimed to inspire the young minds so that the next generation can take on where leave off.

But first, I will tell you a bit about my story. In 1987, I was forced to leave my country, together with over 30,000. This group later became well known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. We had to leave our families (sometimes willingly, sometimes forced out because of war circumstances) and we did not have guidance or maps or any modern kind of tools to look for a direction of where to go. The country was at war and everybody was looking for someone to have their backs. Therefore, when you find yourself with people, you follow the advice of those who were with you.

I left my village and I thought the journey would end in a day. Days became months and months became years and I was separated from my family for 17 years. I had to walk barefoot for thousands of miles. I had to sleep in forests hearing the lion roars. I had to swim across rivers and swamps infested with crocodiles. I had to walk the unforgiving African savannah with many other young people. When all that was said and done, I settled in a refugee camp. And got the privilege of settling in the US in 2001. When I came to the US, I was 21 years old and I had learned a lot about our global community. I like reading and I taught myself about the world around me.

I first flew to NY. Just imagine coming from where I came from and having never seen a big city - let alone Berlin. I flew to NY, I landed there, I had to drive on the road, on the highway. I had a lot of devices and my skills but when we got to the highway, I almost asked my driver to drive on the edge so that if there was an accident, we could branch out.

I resettled in Atlanta. By this time, South Sudan had lost over 2.5 million people, from 1983 to 2005. In 2001, when I arrived in the US, this data was being reported. We had seen a picture of a child being approached by birds. I could not keep quite because I had fully become a member of the global community and I had the power to speak out. That is when I decided to pen my story and with the help of Dave Eggers, you have that book in your hand these days. I think in German it is called Weit Gegangen.

But I thought of one thing. I thought about a word I had learned in East Africa, “harambe.” I thought about what I need to do to use the privilege of becoming a member of the global community to help the community to help the dispossessed people back in my homeland. With that we published the book and I started a foundation, with the idea of “harambe” in my mind. If you don’t speak so highly. “harambe” means coming together as a community to face the challenges, to help one another. As members of the global community, we must come together.

When I started the project, I went back to my country and we decided to invest in educations programs. We went on to establish a high school and building a high school was challenging. There were no tarmac roads to travel, aircraft were very expensive to hire and the place was almost inaccessible. And so what we did was we set up our school and I decided that I was going to educate our students to become contributing members to our global community. So when we enroll our students, we not only educate them about classroom matters and curriculums but we also train them to become leaders of their own communities.

[Pointing a photo on screen] As you can see here, our students in chemistry learned how to manufacture soap, they learned how to manufacture jellies and they learned how to manufacture chalks for their local community. These are things we can hardly import, especially given that the country is now facing another political turmoil. But our school community is able to serve another larger community around. That is part of the assigned work and assigned experiments that our students are now involved in.

You can see some of the student leaders conduct debates and discuss community development issues and social action teams and how they as students in high school go out to help some of their own.

[Pointing at screen] We also have agriculture programs for our students. With that we use the “produce” from the school farms to supplement their nutrition and help the members of the community that are vulnerable.

You can see that we have the sport programs. This year, the entire school was supporting the German team. The reason was that Tom Tykwer was one of the people that visited the school site. Everyone watched his movie, The Perfume and they felt they had a connection with Germany. [Pointing at the screen] That is the team you see there.

[Photo on screen changes] You can see some of our girls discussing issues to do with gender, inequality in the community. Issues to do with young mothers in the community to know how to give prescriptions.

[Photo changes] And you can see this is the rice field. Students are involved in the agriculture programs and we have a rice farm that we go to help others. These are members of the girl guides and the scouts. They are students but if you meet them you will think they are community leaders. Before the game they have to give a salute – you see.

[Photo changes] This is the chalk unit. I think people have forgotten about chalks in our countries these but in the area where the school is located chalks are still in use.

But given all of this and as members of our global community, sometimes I ask myself and others, “Why is it so difficult for someone like me to succeed in our global community today? What environment are we creating for those who do not succeed? And why, as the world becomes so global and so small, are some of our global citizens are allowed to behave in their own national ways?”

You see, I’d like to cut this short.

No culture has it all figure out. We all are members of one entity and that is humanity. And for globalization to meet its goals, we all should work hand-in-hand with one another because we are realizing, everyday, and with every given week, that we have so much more in common than we sometimes think. If you look at this, what we have done in our small way was just establishing a high school. But we have realized that this high school is also the village. It is the community, it is the country and it is the way we are going to raise young people who will have the capacity to help our global community meet its goal. I have a quote that I like reciting. And the only way our children achieve what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and I enjoy the sweet security of the streets,” is by working together hand-in-hand, whether in Berlin, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Legos, in Nairobi – wherever there is. What the globalisation, that global connection, needs is to work together to realize the global community that is a safe home for everyone. I would like to ask each and every one of you to join us on our journey to provide access to quality to education in areas where no one walks or nobody wants to go. I appreciate the time you have given to listen to me and that is end of the story that I wanted to give you.

Yvonne Chen