Dreaming of the Ivy League in South Darfur

A student in a camp for internally displaced persons aces an exam – and brings his dream of attending Columbia University in New York a step closer.

By Iman Mustafa
Sudan. A boy stands with his family.
Mustafa/UNICEF/2019

20 June 2019

SOUTH DARFUR, Sudan  Scoring 275 out of a possible 280 in an exam is an impressive achievement whichever way you look at it. What makes Makhtoom Abdullah’s eighth grade examination score – one of the highest in Sudan’s South Darfur – even more impressive? He has spent his life in the uncertain environment of a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP).

“I got a lot of support from my parents and teachers,” Makhtoom, 15, says. “I’m very happy with this score. We celebrated all night when we found out!”

The Grade 8 exams are a big deal for children and parents alike in Sudan – many of the country’s universities place great weight on the scores, meaning the results can play a crucial role in a child’s academic future.

“I started studying every day for a month before the exams. I was determined to get a high grade, so I could achieve my – and my family’s – dreams,” says Makhtoom.

Sadly, many children in Sudan don’t even get the chance to take the exam. That’s in part because there simply aren’t enough facilities to allow every child to sit the exam at the same time. But security also remains an issue in some villages, and the Ministry of Education isn’t able to safely access some areas to provide exam papers.

I was determined to get a high grade, so I could achieve my – and my family’s – dreams

Even for those children that do have somewhere to take the exam, getting there can mean waking up as early as 4 a.m. to get to an examination location on time, while families in poorer areas often struggle to pay the examination fees. UNICEF support on the ground is therefore crucial, especially for children who have been displaced from their villages – and are regularly on the move – due to conflict. That includes many of the children at Otash camp, where Makhtoom and his family live, which was established in 2004.

UNICEF provides a range of support for the Grade 8 examinations, from creating additional examination centres to providing stationary, chairs, tables, temporary latrines, clean water and lunches. In addition, UNICEF provides transportation, housing and three meals per day for up to eight days for children traveling long distances.

Big dreams in the Big Apple

Makhtoom is already thinking about what comes next – and where he might be able to realize his dream of one day becoming a doctor.

“It’s my dream to go to Columbia University. It’s one of the top university’s in the world,” he says of the New York City institution. “I want to be a part of that.”

But Makhtoom also believes his future is ultimately in Sudan. “My family also want me to be a doctor. I want to eventually be able to take them out of the camp,” he says, adding that he’d like to help them find another home elsewhere in Sudan.

It’s my dream to go to Columbia University. It’s one of the top universities in the world.

Makhtoom’s parents have a look of pride on their faces as their son talks about his plans for the future. “I’m so proud of him, he has helped me lift my head up high,” his father, Abdullah, says, his eyes filling with tears.

UNICEF hopes to build on successes like Makhtoom’s by continuing to support children as they continue their education, opening up opportunities that can eventually lead to prolonged peace and prosperity in the region. That includes providing protection for children on the move and helping them rebuild their lives, as well as offering access to UNICEF integrated services, including referral to education, health and nutrition services.

“I want to make sure that everyone in my camp knows how important education is [to their futures]” Makhtoom adds.