We do not choose where to be born. We do not choose who our parents are. But we do choose how we are going to live our lives.
I did not choose to be born in South Sudan, a country rife with conflict. I did not choose my name—Nyiriak, which means "war." I've always rejected it and all the legacy it was born into. I choose to be called Mary. As a teacher, I've stood in front of 120 students, so this stage does not intimidate me.
My students come from war-torn countries. They're so different from each other, but they have one thing in common: they fled their homes in order to stay alive. Some of them belong to parents back home in South Sudan who are killing each other because they belong to a different tribe or they have a different belief. Others come from other African countries devastated by war. But when they enter my class, they make friends, they walk home together, they do their homework together. There is no hatred allowed in my class.
My story is like that of so many other refugees. The war came when I was still a baby. And my father, who had been absent in most of my early childhood, was doing what other men were doing: fighting for the country. He had two wives and many children. My mother was his second wife, married to him at the age of 16. This is simply because my mother came from a poor background, and she had no choice. My father, on the other hand, was rich. He had many cows.
Gunshots were the order of the day. My community was constantly under attack. Communities would fight each other as they took water along the Nile. But that was not all. Planes would drop the spinning and terrifying bombs that chopped off people's limbs. But the most terrifying thing for every single parent was to see their children being abducted and turned into young soldiers.
My mother dug a trench that soon became our home. But yet, we did not feel protected. She had to flee in search of a safe place for us. I was four years old, and my younger sister was two. We joined a huge mass of people, and together we walked for many agonizing days in search of a secure place. But we could barely rest before we were attacked again. I remember my mother was pregnant, when she would take turns to carry me and my younger sister.
We finally made it across the Kenyan border, yes. But that was the longest journey that I have ever had in my whole life. My feet were raw with blisters. To our surprise, we found other family members who had fled into the camp earlier on, where you all are today, the Kakuma camp. Now, I want you all to be very quiet just for a moment. Do you hear that? The sound of silence. No gunshots. Peace, at last. That was my first memory of this camp. When you move from a war zone and come to a secure place like Kakuma, you've really gone far.
I only stayed in the camp for three years, though. My father, who had been absent in most of my early childhood, came back into my life. And he organized for me to move with my uncle to our family in Nakuru. There, I found my father's first wife, my half sisters and my half brothers. I got enrolled in school. I remember my first day in school—I could sing and laugh again—and my first set of school uniforms, you bet. It was amazing. But then I came to realize that my uncle did not find it fit for me to go to school, simply because I was a girl. My half brothers were his first priority. He would say, "Educating a girl is a waste of time." And for that reason, I missed many days of school, because the fees were not paid. My father stepped in and organized for me to go to boarding school. I remember the faith that he put in me over the couple of years to come. He would say, "Education is an animal that you have to overcome. With an education, you can survive. Education shall be your first husband." And with these words came in his first big investment. I felt lucky!
But I was missing something: my mother. My mother had been left behind in the camp, and I had not seen her since I left it. Six years without seeing her was really long. I was alone, in school, when I heard of her death. I've seen many people back in South Sudan lose their lives. I've heard from neighbors lose their sons, their husbands, their children. But I never thought that that would ever come into my life.
A month earlier, my stepmother, who had been so good to me back in Nakuru, died first. Then I came to realize that after giving birth to four girls, my mother had finally given birth to something that could have made her be accepted into the community—a baby boy, my baby brother. But he, too, joined the list of the dead.
The most hurting part for me was the fact that I wasn't able to attend my mother's burial. I wasn't allowed. They said her family did not find it fit for her children, who are all girls, to attend her burial, simply because we were girls. They would lament to me and say, "We are sorry, Mary, for your loss. We are sorry that your parents never left behind any children." And I would wonder: What are we? Are we not children? In the mentality of my community, only the boy child counted. And for that reason, I knew this was the end of me.
But I was the eldest girl. I had to take care of my siblings. I had to ensure they went to school. I was 13 years old. How could I have made that happen? I came back to the camp to take care of my siblings. I've never felt so stuck. But then, one of my aunts, Auntie Okoi, decided to take my sisters. My father sent me money from Juba for me to go back to school. Boarding school was heaven, but it was also so hard. I remember during the visiting days when parents would come to school, and my father would miss. But when he did come, he repeated the same faith in me. This time he would say, "Mary, you cannot go astray, because you are the future of your siblings."
But then, in 2012, life took away the only thing that I was clinging on. My father died. My grades in school started to collapse, and when I sat for my final high school exams in 2015, I was devastated to receive a C grade. OK, I keep telling students in my class, "It's not about the A's; it's about doing your best." That was not my best. I was determined. I wanted to go back and try again. But my parents were gone. I had no one to take care of me, and I had no one to pay that fee. I felt so hopeless.
But then, one of my best friends, a beautiful Kenyan lady, Esther Kaecha, called me during this devastating moment, and she was like, "Mary, you have a strong will. And I have a plan, and it's going to work." OK, when you're in those devastating moments, you accept anything, right? So the plan was, she organized some travel money for us to travel to Anester Victory Girls High School. I remember that day so well. It was raining when we entered the principal's office. We were shaking like two chickens that had been rained on, and we looked at him. He was asking, "What do you want?" And we looked at him with the cat face. "We just want to go back to school." Well, believe it or not, he not only paid our school fees but also our uniform and pocket money for food. Clap for him.
When I finished my high school career, I became the head girl. And when I sat for the KCSE for a second time, I was able to receive a B minus. Clap.
So I really want to say thank you to Anester Victory, Mr. Gatimu and the whole Anester fraternity for giving me that chance.
From time to time, members of my family will insist that my sister and I should get married so that somebody will take care of us. They will say, "We have a man for you." I really hate the fact that people took us as property rather than children. Sometimes they will jokingly say, "You are going to lose your market value the more educated you become." But the truth is, an educated woman is feared in my community. But I told them, this is not what I want. I don't want to get kids at 16 like my mother did. This is not my life. Even though my sisters and I are suffering, there's no way we are heading in that direction. I refuse to repeat history. Educating a girl will create equal and stable societies. And educated refugees will be the hope of rebuilding their countries someday. Girls and women have a part to play in this just as much as men.
Well, we have men in my family that encourage me to move on: my half brothers and also my half sisters. When I finished my high school career, I moved my sisters to Nairobi, where they live with my stepsister. They live 17 people in a house. But don't pity us. The most important thing is that they all get a decent education. The winners of today are the losers of yesterday, but who never gave up. And that is who we are, my sisters and I. And I'm so proud of that. My biggest investment in life—is the education of my sisters. Education creates an equal and fair chance for everyone to make it. I personally believe education is not all about the syllabus. It's about friendship. It's about discovering our talents. It's about discovering our destiny. I will, for example, not forget the joy that I had when I first had singing lessons in school, which is still a passion of mine. But I wouldn't have gotten that anywhere else. As a teacher, I see my classroom as a laboratory that not only generates skills and knowledge but also understanding and hope. Let's take a tree. A tree may have its branches cut, but give it water, and it will grow new branches. For the child of war, an education can turn their tears of loss into a passion for peace. And for that reason, I refuse to give up on a single student in my class.
Education heals. The school environment gives you a focus to focus ahead. Let's take it this way: when you're busy solving mathematical equations, and you are memorizing poetry, you forget the violence that you witnessed back home. And that is the power of education. It creates this place for peace. Kakuma is teeming with learners. Over 85,000 students are enrolled in schools here, which makes up 40 percent of the refugee population. It includes children who lost years of education because of the war back home. And I want to ask you a question: If education is about building a generation of hope, why are there 120 students packed in my classroom? Why is it that only six percent of the primary school students are making it to high school, simply because we do not have enough places for them? And why is it that only one percent of the secondary school graduates are making it to university?
I began by saying that I am a teacher. But once again, I have become a student. In March, I moved to Rwanda on a scholarship program called "Bridge2Rwanda." It prepares scholars for universities. They are able to get a chance to compete for universities abroad. I am now having teachers telling me what to do, instead of the other way round. People are once again investing in me.
So I want to ask you all to invest in young refugees. Think of the tree that we mentioned earlier. We are the generation to plant it, so that the next generation can water it, and the one that follows will enjoy the shade. They will reap the benefits. And the greatest benefit of them all is an education that will last.