Lost Boys charity regroups after turmoil

neseiJanuary 27, 2009 (Burlington, USA) - A Vermont-based nonprofit group established by former Lost Boys of Sudan and their American friends is struggling with financial problems in the wake of disagreements over the organization’s mission and leadership.

The New Sudan Education Initiative has delayed for two months the reopening of its first school, in Yei, Sudan, after some private donors withdrew support.

Executive Director Robert Lair in Underhill declined to say how much money NESEI has lost in canceled donations. He said the 75-girl high school will reopen in April, perhaps with a scaled-down staff.

“We wanted to make sure we have enough committed money to make it through the year. We don’t want to leave the students high and dry,” NESEI board member Kate Hunter of Burlington added.

Eight of the organization’s 10 board members resigned in October, after months of tension between the board and Lair, and after receiving an ultimatum from the director. He said he would resign unless the board was restructured with fewer members.

The autumn turmoil stemmed in part from the unhappiness of some Burlington-area Sudanese, who believe their role in the group has been marginalized. Several said they believe the first NESEI project, a boarding school with a 3,000-acre farm, was too ambitious and expensive.

“We want to continue our vision of bringing schools to our country, but we can no longer achieve our goal through NESEI,” said Abraham Awolich, a co-founder of NESEI.

“Our people put the responsibility on us because we were lucky to come to America. They tell us, ‘It’s your job to rebuild southern Sudan,’” Awolich said. “Of course, we cannot do it alone, but NESEI was not listening to us.”

Like about 50 members of a refugee group called the Lost Boys of Sudan, Awolich spent his childhood in flight from war and then in a bleak Kenya refugee camp. He was resettled in Burlington in 2001 at age 22 with a refugee-camp high school education. He graduated from UVM and is a graduate student in public administration at Syracuse University.

Lair and Hunter disagreed with Awolich’s analysis, noting that a refugee, Atem Deng, sits on the board and that Sudanese people serve on the school staff in Yei.

“This has been a real crunch, an adrenaline-driven period of time,” Hunter said. “The people who did the work, in this country and in Sudan, were people who could work for very little money and do nothing but work.” Often, Sudanese refugees in America were either in school or could not afford to work as unpaid interns or for a nominal salary, she said.

“As we grow, there will be more room for the Sudanese,” she said.

A smaller board of three people, including Deng and Hunter, now oversees the organization. Earlier last year, NESEI received a boost in the form of a three-year, $300,000 grant from the California-based Draper Richards Foundation.

Schools for a war-torn country
NESEI quickly began to thrive after its founding in January 2006 by Awolich, Deng and Lair, an adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College and a mentor to Sudanese refugees.

Their goal: To build 20 schools in southern Sudan, a region devastated by 40 years of civil war, where many children receive no schooling. A peace settlement between the south and the central government in 2005 opened the way for NESEI’s work.

With the help of other Sudanese refugees and local churches, the men raised seed money for the project. In May 2007, Awolich and Lair were awarded a $200,000 World Bank grant.

The model they presented was for a Sudanese-American partnership to build “sustainable” schools, schools with money-making enterprises attached to provide financial support.

“In the World Bank’s case, that’s what they were attracted to,” said David A. Jones, a UVM professor of business and, until October, chair of the NESEI board. “They were seeing us as different. Rather than building a school and remaining reliant on donors in America, we were building a school that was sustainable over time.”

The New Sudan School of Health Sciences opened in May 2008 with 75 girls, including 30 who had been living in a displaced persons camp. Most school fees for the girls were paid by other nonprofit groups or by scholarship funds raised by NESEI.

A vegetable farm launched simultaneously is to provide food for the school as well as to sell in local markets. Plans to raise livestock and make bricks for sale have not yet been acted on.

At the World Bank, Theresa Bradley, director of the Development Martketplace program, said the bank was “thrilled” with NESEI’s work and is “in dialogue” with the group to make sure the project is being carried out as promised in the grant.

‘It’s not Charlotte’

Back in the United States, NESEI was experiencing internal problems. Awolich had resigned as co-director to go to graduate school and was increasingly at odds with Lair.

The budget had grown rapidly, from $40,000 to nearly $1 million, former board members said. Some board members, American and Sudanese, were worried about nuts-and-bolts issues like insufficiently detailed budgets and the amount of money being spent on a single school.

“We were spending $30,000 a month on that school,” said former board member Bior Bior, a UVM biology graduate student. “That’s a far cry from what should be necessary in East Africa. We know how to live with less. It’s not Charlotte.”

Instead, he and Awolich wished the program would build smaller, less expensive, community-based schools.

Impractical, said Lair and Hunter. Working in Sudan, a country with little physical infrastructure and a population recovering from war, is incredibly difficult, they said. A boarding school provides security and stability for students, they said.

For others connected to the organization, the problem was what they saw as diminished Sudanese involvement.

“The program lost focus on the central role for the Sudanese,” said Peter Galbraith of Burlington, a longtime volunteer mentor for many of the former Lost Boys.

Awolich and Sudanese members of the board said employing the refugees and involving them more in decision making would have two benefits — their knowledge of Sudanese tribal culture would help NESEI, and working for NESEI would provide them with new skills and a direct way to help their native land.

“That’s how to empower the Sudanese and give them skills,” Awolich said. “When people go to the office, they should not just see pictures of Sudan on the wall, they should see Sudanese working there.”

Deng said hiring more Sudanese is not always practical.

“Yes, the Sudanese here have skills,” he said. “But they don’t have years of grant-writing experience. We can help with decisions and speak to donors. It’s all about raising money here to build schools there.”

A fresh start?

The disagreements came to a head in October, with Lair’s letter of resignation. Instead, a majority of the board decided to resign.

American members of the board said NESEI’s survival was at stake. If they had accepted Lair’s resignation, other NESEI staff and the Draper Richards grant would have gone with him, they said.

So most of the board left instead. Anne Marie Burgoyne, a Draper Richard employee, became chairwoman. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Awolich, Bior and Alex Pial, another Sudanese board member, withdrew their support. Some donors followed suit.

The new NESEI board is regrouping, writing a smaller budget — Hunter said she did not know how deep the cuts would be — raising new funds and still hoping to build additional schools in coming years.

Jones, the former board chairman, said the board’s departure was a chance for NESEI and Lair, whose commitment and hard work were mentioned by several board members, to make a fresh start.

“I do believe incredibly strongly that everyone involved with NESEI is so dedicated,” he said. “It is such a complex situation, I don’t look at any one party and say, they are in the right, the others are in the wrong.”

(THE story was originally published on Jan. 25 on Burlington Free Press website)