South Sudanese refugee Nhial Deng, empowered over 20,000 refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya through peacebuilding, education, and entrepreneurship programmes, as well as creating a safe space for young people to heal from their trauma. Nhial has been named the winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2023. The US$100,000 sister award to the Global Teacher Prize is given to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers, and on society beyond.
Nhial’s story of how he became a student journalist is an inspiring reminder of how adversity can be used in the service of others. Until the age of 11, Nhial’s childhood was relatively peaceful, living in a west Ethiopian village where he would go to school in the mornings and play in the river with other kids in the afternoons. His father owned a small radio and men from the neighbourhood would join him in the evenings to listen, analyse the news and discuss world affairs. Nhial imitated the news anchors, and this was his first inkling of becoming a journalist.
However, one morning in 2010, this life vanished in the space of a few minutes. Gunshots announced the attack of a militia: Nhial had to flee as the village was burnt to the ground. Two weeks later, after a traumatic journey with others from the village, he arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which would become Nhial’s home for the next decade. However, the journey meant that he was separated from his father, mother and six siblings for 12 years – a crushing loss at such a young age. Through the UNHCR child protection program, Nhial was assigned to a good foster family, and found solace and hope at school. 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.
After finishing high school, Nhial had to rely mainly on his smartphone to take free online courses on subjects like peace and conflict, human rights, international affairs, English, and journalism. When the COVID pandemic struck, Nhial set up a digital awareness campaign to tackle misinformation, focused on credible sources such as the World Health Organization and the Kenyan Ministry of Health. These efforts helped reach over 40,000 people in Kakuma and Kalobeyei with credible and life-saving information about the virus. Nhial also created a Twitter account in the refugee camp to share the experiences of refugees. Although he has now begun his higher studies at Huron University College, Nhial continues to work on projects to assist life in the camp, such as the Kakuma Book Drive – a global student-led solidarity movement that aims to mobilize 10,000 textbooks, laptops, and funding for a library and community center for young people in the Kakuma refugee camp.
Nhial is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Award, the World Vision Hero for Children Courage Award 2023, and the FilmAid Student Award 2021. 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. If he wins the Global Student Prize, Nhial will allocate 50% of the prize money to the construction and sustainable operation of the Kakuma Leadership and Innovation Centre, where a library and innovation hub will be based.