Chep Makur Chuot still remembers the first time he set foot inside the crowded school room at the Kakuma refugee camp Kenya. He was a frightened nine-year-old boy who had lost his father and his home to the conflict in South Sudan.
“I remember the smell of porridge that they served us at lunch,” says Chep who arrived to the camp frail and weak after his long journey to safety. “It wasn’t the tastiest food, but it was hot and filling. I looked forward to it every day.”
Chep has come a long way since then. Now living in Australia, he donned a cap and gown a few weeks ago to receive his degree in Mechatronic Engineering. Before he even graduated, he’d already landed a well-paying job programming robots for a mining laboratory in Perth.
“I’m here today because of what I learned in school,” says Chep. “If they hadn’t fed us, I don’t think I would have learned very much.”
Chep's father was killed in a spate of fighting that also cost his family their land and cattle. Destitute, his mother left Chep and his siblings with their grandmother to find a safe haven for her family. She was gone for more than a year.
“We didn’t even know if she was alive,” says Chep. “People who tried to leave the village were getting killed all the time. Many of them gave up and came back with terrible stories. All we could do was to try not to think about it."
Their empty stomachs filled their thoughts instead as food in the village grew scarcer by the day. First they went from two meals to one. Then the remaining meal started getting smaller. Some days, they had to skip it altogether.
Finally his mother returned to take her children to the Kakuma camp in Kenya where Chep would spend the next 12 years of his life.
Learning and dreaming
Food and school were among few certainties for children in the camp like Chep. There was enough to eat for everyone, but to get it they had to come to school.
“I would have come anyway,” says Chep, whose voracious appetite for knowledge kept him at the top of his class both at the refugee camp and later on in college. “But some of the other kids wouldn’t have. And anyway, you can’t learn if you’re hungry. Try studying for an exam without eating all day and you’ll see what I mean.”
Chep says it was clear from the outset that his surest route to a better life was through that classroom. While still a refugee, he studied all the way through high school where he discovered a knack for physics and chemistry.
“People don’t believe me when I tell them everything I learned in the camps,” Chep says. “When I came to Australia, all I needed were a few college-prep courses and I was ready for university. The entrance exams were tough, but I passed and now here I am.”
Excited about his new job at the mining laboratory, Chep says he plans on going back to South Sudan one day to raise his family. “It’s a new country and we’ve got to build it up from scratch. It needs roads and bridges and schools. It needs engineers!