Documentary offers insight into Fargo-based African Soul nonprofit

FARGO -- Gina Sandgren was born in Kenya after her parents moved there for work. She lived there for her first few years, but after the family moved back to the United States, she didn't give too much thought to going back to Africa. Until a few ...
Kim Baird , center, and her husband, John, sponsor a student in the African Soul, American Heart program and recently went to Uganda to see the nonprofit at work. Deb Dawson / Special to The Forum
Kim Baird , center, and her husband, John, sponsor a student in the African Soul, American Heart program and recently went to Uganda to see the nonprofit at work. Deb Dawson / Special to The Forum

FARGO - Gina Sandgren was born in Kenya after her parents moved there for work. She lived there for her first few years, but after the family moved back to the United States, she didn't give too much thought to going back to Africa.

Until a few years ago.

The Moorhead woman started following the work Fargo philanthropist Deb Dawson was doing to educate girls in the Republic of South Sudan. In 2010, Sandgren started supporting Dawson's nonprofit, African Soul, American Heart, and the past few years has been sponsoring a young woman named Rebecca Nyadak Deng Duoth.

In September, the sponsor and student met face-to-face for the first time as Sandgren accompanied Dawson on a trip to the Ugandan school she started. The trip and Dawson's work are the subject of the short documentary "Orphans of the Nile," which airs at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on WDAY.

Sandgren says the trip made a big impact on her.

"To know what they've been through, what they've seen, but they exude this hope," she says. "I admire their resilience."

WDAY reporter and the documentary's narrator, Kevin Wallevand, seconds Sandgren's sentiment. He and photographer/editor Devin Krinke accompanied the humanitarian mission.

"The human spirit is a resilient thing," Wallevand says. "They are forced to grow up so drastically. These girls - 10, 11 and 12 years old - shouldn't have to think of that at that age."

South Sudan has seen civil war for decades,with atrocities carried out against civilians by the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.

Homes and villages were torched and destroyed, families were split up or slaughtered, and women were raped.

In the documentary, a trauma counselor says the South Sudanese are the most traumatized in the world.

Dawson got involved in 2007 after meeting Joseph Akol Makeer, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a name given to the more than 20,000 Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups displaced by the civil wars. She wanted to do more for the vulnerable young girls, so she started the boarding school. By 2012, she had 34 orphans enrolled.

It was a good start, but it wouldn't last. A new war broke out in 2014,and the girls scattered as the school was ravaged. Dawson regrouped the girls and set up a new ASAH school in neighboring Uganda.

Dawson says ASAH has graduated nine students and currently has 48 enrolled.

Since 2010, she's been back to South Sudan or Uganda 18 times, from two to eight weeks at a time.

In one scene in the documentary, the girls run up to greet Dawson as she gets off the plane. She becomes visibly emotional.

"It doesn't ever get old. This is what I live every day for," she says, wiping away tears.

"They're like my kids. They call me mommy. It's a tremendous responsibility that I have," Dawson explained last week from her Fargo home, again becoming overwhelmed just thinking about it. "If I don't continue doing this work and get these kids through school, there isn't anyone else to do it. I feel a big responsibility to do what we said we would for these girls, and that's protect them, educate them and empower them."

Dawson says getting the girls an education and teaching them to support themselves will put them in the "upper strata," as South Sudan has only a 14 percent literacy rate.

She hopes people see the documentary, either Wednesday night on ABC or Sunday afternoon at the Fargo Theatre.

"I hope it raises awareness for how important for girls across the world to be educated and have some control over their future," she says.

Sandgren says her experience wasn't just about empowering women, but about building bridges across countries and cultures.

"If people are going to begin to open themselves up to the world as it is, we need to spend some time getting to know people that are different from us," she says.

 

On TV

What: "Orphans of the Nile"

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16

Channel: WDAY

 

If you go

What: "Orphans of the Nile"

When: 3:15 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N.

Info: Free screening followed by Q&A with participants. www.fargotheatre.org, (701) 239-8385.