NHIAL Deng, a South Sudanese refugee, has secured the 2023 Chegg.org Global Student Prize, a $100,000 award celebrating exceptional students making a difference in learning, among peers, and in society.
According to a joint press statement by Chegg.org and The Varkey Foundation, the sponsors of the prize, Deng’s story, is “extraordinary.”
“He empowered over 20,000 refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya through peacebuilding, education, and entrepreneurship programs,” the statement reads.
Competing with more than 4,000 students from 122 countries, the 24-year-old is also being recognized for “creating a safe space for young people to heal from their trauma.”
According to Heather Hatlo, the head of Chegg.org, Nhial has overcome unimaginable adversity to keep fighting for a better future.
“Not just for himself, but for thousands like him,” he explains in the statement.
His family having been displaced from Ulang, South Sudan, before he was born, settled in a village in Gembel, West Ethiopia. However, militia attacks in 2010 breached peace in the region, forcing the then-11-year-old to seek refuge in Kakuma, Kenya, his home for over a decade.
He was later assigned to a foster family, where he found solace in living a normal teenage life and going to school through to the secondary school level.
However, throughout that time, he was determined to end the cycle of strife.
“He set up a journalism club in his high school to create a space for students to learn the arts of storytelling, and founded the Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors, a youth-led initiative working on peacebuilding, youth empowerment, and social entrepreneurship,” the statement further details.
He later pursued online courses, learning about peace, conflict, human rights, and journalism.
His digital campaign aiming to tackle misinformation on COVID-19 in Kenya reached over 40,000 people, especially in Kakuma and Kalobeyei.
In 2021, he created SheLeads Kakuma, a leadership, advocacy, and mentorship program for young girls and women to promote gender equality in several refugee camps, with help from a grant from the global advocacy organization Women Deliver, connecting young refugee girls and women with female mentors worldwide.
Deng actively runs programs such as the Kakuma Book Drive, a global student-led solidarity movement that aims to provide 10,000 textbooks, laptops, and funding for a library and community centre for young people.
“His community work in Kakuma has impacted over 20,000 young people, and he currently serves on eight committees and advisory boards, including two United Nations committees,” the statement reveals.
He is now being recognized by a number of organisations, including the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, for the impactful role he plays in a marginalised community.
His active involvement in advocacy for children, youth, and refugees has earned him a number of awards, including the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Award, the World Vision Hero for Children Courage Award 2023, and the FilmAid Student Award 2021, among others.
Deng’s win was announced on September 18 from New York, USA, during the UN General Assembly week.
He has said he will allocate 50% of the prize money to the construction and sustainable operation of the Kakuma Leadership and Innovation Center in the Kakuma refugee camp, where a library and innovation hub will be based to host all the books and tech support he is collecting.
“Nhial’s journey also echoes the perseverance of countless students throughout the world who, despite overwhelming odds, show great courage to keep studying and keep striving for a brighter tomorrow,” Chegg.org’s Hatlo further remarks.
Deng is currently reading for a degree in global studies and communication through a full scholarship at Huron University, Ontario, in Canada.
Deng’s win is the second for Africa since the prize was launched. Sierra Leone’s Jeremiah Thoronka won the inaugural 2021 edition for inventing a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.
The 2023 edition of the prize further reveals that 10 African students, apart from Deng, are among the top 50 finalists drawn from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa.