Almost thirty years ago, Micklina Peter Kenyi was living in South Sudan when war broke out. She spent the next few years fighting to survive with other children who came to be known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan. Now a Colorado resident, Kenyi will be at the Museum of Boulder on November 12 as part of its Boulder Conversations with Extraordinary People series to talk about her life and accomplishments.
The now 37-year-old was forced to leave her family behind and flee from the genocide, which claimed the lives of over two million people.
"Life in Sudan was good," Kenyi remembers. "I was with my family all the time, until the war and then all the time we were hiding and running from one village to the other just trying to survive. When it's a war situation, you don't think of anybody. You just run for your life."
She eventually took refuge in Kenya, where she met Sister Luise Radlemeier, who helped her get an education and later aided in her resettlement in America. Because her mother had never received an education, Kenyi strongly believed it would make her own life better.
"I feel like education is so important because in South Sudan people, mostly men, think that a woman's place is in the kitchen or to give birth," she says. "I want to prove to them that's not right. A women can do exactly what a man can do, and sometimes more. So education is the key for me to fight all the problems in South Sudan -- poverty, corruption, all types of things."
In 2000, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security opened this country's borders to the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, Kenyi took the opportunity to come to America. Unfortunately, the day of her last interview was September 11, 2001, and Kenyi was sent home to wait. She finally relocated to Aurora, Colorado in 2003.
She worked part-time at Target and then was accepted at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she received bachelor degrees in political science and gender studies and eventually a master's degree in educational foundation policy and practice.
Micklina Kenyi graduating from CU Boulder with a master's degree in educational foundation policy and practice.
Courtesy Micklina Kenyi
She started making connections and opened the nonprofit Community of South Sudanese and American Women. She raised thousands of dollars and started working with Sister Radlemeier to bring more girls to America; six in 2006, with more coming each subsequent year. Kenyi helps them set up a life in America, finding them jobs, housing and education opportunities. Now with eighteen girls, it's the biggest settlement of lost girls outside of Africa.
"I can see the changes within the girls," she says. "They started working at grocery stores making $6 an hour, and now they're working in home care making over $20 an hour. They are so independent and empowered."
Kenyi has also helped the girls reconnect with their estranged family members, and she has been able to track down her own. During the war, Kenyi's brothers were captured and were to be sent to fight -- but they managed to escape. Their mother risked her life to cover for them and eventually fled the country as well. Kenyi was able to bring her to America in 2008; she's kept in contact with her father and other siblings.
Another priority for Kenyi is keeping the South Sudanese culture alive for her two children. "I feel like this is part of my identity, and my kids the same," she says. "I don't want to throw away my culture and say, 'Things aren't good there, so I don't want to be South Sudanese.' I want to take the best of my culture and the best of American culture and mix them in my identity."
She's also focused on helping her native country, and plans to build a school for the girls and women of South Sudan. She's been given over 1,000 acres and hopes to include a community center, a clinic and a technology center. And she's working on a documentary called The Dawn Will Break about Sister Radlemeier and the Lost Girls of Sudan.
When she arrived in America, Keyni noticed that people always seemed willing to give a hand. She thinks Americans have good hearts, and it's with their help that the situation in South Sudan can be improved. "There's always problems in the world, let's not give up," she says. "Let the American people continue to be good Samaritans and extend their helping hands. We still need American's to keep a close eye on the situation."
Keyni will be speaking at the Museum of Boulder at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 12. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at boulderhistory.org.
Follow Amanda Moutinho on Twitter at @amandamoutinho.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!