Gabriel’s Story

Gabriel promoting education in Ariang South Sudan

Gabriel’s Journey Away from Home

Gabriel Bol Deng has overcome unbelievable obstacles in life. He was 10 years old when North Sudanese Murahileen militiamen led a violent attack on his village of Ariang in South Sudan in 1987. He fled into a forest, not knowing the fate of his parents or siblings. After his escape, Gabriel embarked on a perilous four-month long journey, crossing the Nile River and untold miles of desert; surviving disease, and devastating hunger to reach the Dimma Refugee Camp in Ethiopia. In 1988, he had a life-changing dream in which he was reminded of his parents’ charge to him as a young boy: that he could move mountains with the power of hope. This mantra continues to guide Gabriel.

The Power of Hope

Gabriel’s belief that he is capable of “moving mountains” strengthened him to overcome famine and a paralyzing snake bite. More importantly, it gave him a thirst for knowledge which inspired him to pursue education. Gabriel was 13 years old when he began his formal education, which involved writing on cardboard with pieces of charcoal under a tree at Dimma. Four years later, he fled from violence again, leaving Ethiopia and traveling on foot to Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. There, Gabriel completed his primary and secondary education.

In 2001, Gabriel came to the United States as part of the Refugee Resettlement Program and settled in Syracuse, New York. His desire to further his education led him to earn an Associate of Arts degree in Mathematics and Sciences from Onondaga Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor’s of Arts in Philosophy with a minor in Mathematics Education from Le Moyne College in 2007, where he was named “Student Teacher of the Year.” In 2012 he was honored with the “Young Alumnus Award” at Le Moyne. His endurance and resilience transformed him from an illiterate cow herder to a distinguished degree holder.

Returning Home

On May 22, 2007, Gabriel returned to his home village of Ariang for the first time in over 20 years. After seeing students learning in make-shift schools under trees; without trained teachers, instruction materials, or basic supplies, Gabriel was determined to transform the poor learning environment into a permanent learning facility.

Bringing HOPE to Ariang

The visit to South Sudan helped Gabriel realize the urgent needs of his community. This spurred him to found the HOPE for Ariang Foundation as a vehicle to help rebuild Ariang village after years of devastating conflict, a dream that he has nurtured since his return from that trip. With renewed purpose, Gabriel sought the help of Dr. J. Barron Boyd for an initial investment to purchase 200 t-shirts that would raise funds for the construction of the Ariang School.

Thousands of t-shirts, hundreds of speaking engagements, and a powerful award-winning documentary film later, Gabriel welcomed the first group of students into a brand new school building in January 2011. HOPE for Ariang Foundation has continued to receive tremendous outpouring of grassroots support from students, educators, and citizens throughout the United States as well as Europe.

Today, instead of traveling for survival as he once did as a refugee, Gabriel now travels to inspire others with the mantra that helped him overcome extraordinary odds: Resilience, respect, a positive attitude, hard work, and the power of dreams can empower individuals to reach their full potential. HOPE for Ariang is a testament to that belief

Audience Response to his presentations

Gabriel Bol Deng speaking to students

Gabriel speaking at Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull, CT (2010)

“Gabriel’s message is particularly relevant to our anti-bullying movement for two reasons.  First, a focus on resiliency is important to any bullying prevention. Second, as our students are taught, genocide like that in Sudan is simply bullying being played out on a much grander and more horrific scale (there are bullies, bystanders, etc.) Witnessing Gabriel’s resilience and empowerment in the face of such violence is illuminating to our children and our community as a whole.”

Christine Guthery, Esq.
Natick Parents against Bullying & Cyberbullying.

“Gabriel’s motivation and optimism were remarkable. He not only survived separation from his family, war and other hardships, but he has become a tremendously dedicated activist for the people of Sudan. His presentation was captivating, but moreover his unique insights and knowledge that he shared were inspiring and allowed for intellectual conversion among University of Dayton students and faculty.”

Kata Lucas
Diversity Lecture Series Board

University of Dayton

“Gabriel gave us much to reflect upon and several people in attendance have spoken of a thought he imparted or an idea he shared. What a gracious, courageous and articulate gentleman he is, who challenged all of us to be better people and get involved in our world.”

Sue Tronco
Student Activities

University of Northern Colorado

“Our evening with Gabriel was both powerful and inspiring. His story captivated the Cedar Crest College audience, and left both students and other campus community members thirsty for more of Gabriel’s memories of the South Sudan. After the presentation, Gabriel was gracious in answering questions and engaged with students in conversation. Those who attended Gabriel’s presentation, The Power of Hope, couldn’t thank me enough for bringing Gabriel to our campus. I can’t thank Gabriel enough for being such an outstanding guest.”

Kelly Ann Murray
Residence Life Coordinator & Coordinator of
International and Diversity Programs
Cedar Crest College

“I was so inspired by Gabriel’s optimistic view point on life. In such tough situations, the one he experienced being extremely rough, I would find it so easy to abandon hope and give up. But the fact that Gabriel worked through it and made him into a great person is inspiring. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to stick through something like that, but the fact that Gabriel overcame such obstacles confirm my faith in human strength and nature. And just maybe, next time I’m in a tough situation I will try a little harder to persevere since I know it’s possible to do so.”

Kate Dirrigl
E.O Smith High School, CT

“Gabriel was very interested and willing to meet and talk to students during his visit. He opened the eyes of our student body to the suffering in Sudan. Many student groups have already expressed interest in pursuing a project to help his school. It was important for the students to put a friendly face to this unique part of the world, and the challenges they face in Sudan.”

Brooke James
Student Activities and Leadership
St. Lawrence University

Listen to Gabriel tell his story

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