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Refugee breaks new ground with election to Fargo School Board

Nyamal Dei, who fled her homeland of South Sudan as a war refugee when she was a young girl, is possibly the first person of color to ever be elected to the school board and perhaps the first person of color to ever be elected to public office in Fargo.

Nyamal Dei picture .jpg
Nyamal Dei.
Submitted photo
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FARGO — Nyamal Dei's election to the Fargo School Board on Tuesday, June 14, is believed to be a first in many ways.

Dei, who fled her homeland of South Sudan as a war refugee when she was a young girl, is possibly the first person of color to ever be elected to the school board and perhaps the first person of color to ever be elected to public office in Fargo.

That's according to a number of sources, including officials at Fargo Public Schools, who said while the school district doesn't keep record of the race of school board members, no one of color has served on the board since at least 1974.

Fargo City Auditor Steve Sprague said when it comes to other elected offices in Fargo, he has no knowledge of a person of color ever being elected as a city commissioner, mayor or park board member.

"But I have only been here 22 years," Sprague added.

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A spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley said it appears Dei is the first person of color elected to any elected position in Fargo, at least in the past 50 years.

The day after the election, Dei told The Forum that she is aware of the unique position she holds and the responsibilities that come with it.

Those responsibilities, she said, include representing all residents of the school district, including the refugee community, which she became a member of when she fled the violence of war-torn South Sudan as a child, leaving her parents behind.

Dei, whose last name is pronounced like the word "day," eventually made it to the United States, graduating from high school in Georgia and later going on to earn a master's degree in public health.

Now a U.S. citizen, Dei works in public health and is a consultant in the field.

Dei is also the founder of a nonprofit group called Kondial Kel International, which works to improve lives through education and to empower women.

Dei, who reconnected with her mother, Nyahoth Dieng, before her mother's death in 2010, said she credits whatever successes she has had to her mother, who she said did much to help her family survive and instilled in her an awareness of the value of education.

Though Dei is believed to be the first person of color to serve on the Fargo School Board and perhaps any elected office in Fargo, she is not alone in the region when it comes to people of color holding public office.

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Rachel Stone, who is a person of color, serves on the Moorhead School Board, and until recently the city of Moorhead had a black mayor, Johnathan Judd, who is now a Minnesota district court judge.

Stone, who was the first African American to be elected to the Moorhead School Board and also the first African American chosen to be Mrs. North Dakota International, said one reason she ran for the school board was because she wanted to bring a different perspective to the job.

"I felt there were voices in the community that were not being heard," said Stone, who said she can identify with the joy and the sense of responsibility Dei must be feeling.

Dei said she believes a major factor in her election win was her willingness to meet voters face to face, estimating she knocked on 4,000 doors during her campaign.

She said her efforts must have been noticed, because many times when she knocked on a door the resident who greeted her already knew who she was.

Dei said oftentimes when she left someone's home, people would offer her a drink of water to fortify her for the return to the campaign trail.

"Our community is really kind," Dei said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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