He Founded a School in South Sudan at 26, and U.S. Bet on Him

Investing in exchange programs for young Africans has produced significant dividends. We should expand those efforts.

Students at the Promised Land High School in South Sudan study in a crumbling building, but their test scores are among the highest in the country. The school's founder, Jok Abraham Thon, is trying to build a new campus. Photo courtesy of the Jüdische Kulturbund Project, from the documentary film "Bullets to Books."

Some of South Sudan’s top-scoring high school students in recent years have come from a school called Promised Land, located near a cattle camp outside of the capital Juba. Its mission is to provide quality education to conflict-affected youths, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to study. Nearly half of its 850 students are girls. Jok Abraham Thon, who founded the school in 2016, when he was 26, traveled to the United States two years later to study at the University of Delaware as a Nelson Mandela fellow through a large State Department exchange program called the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

Since his fellowship, Thon has improved the school significantly and is trying to build a new campus, funded through a support network established and strengthened through his YALI experience. As the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, I visited Promised Land in 2019 to celebrate its incredible achievement. Thon’s vision and success have brought hope to his community and demonstrated to the government, which has failed to make education a priority, what it looks like to invest in the young country’s future.

I arrived in Juba the same year Thon was in the United States. South Sudan had been an independent country for less than seven years, for most of which it fought a brutal civil war with dire humanitarian consequences. Ongoing insecurity stunted economic development, complicated our humanitarian assistance efforts and limited the U.S. presence in the country. Despite the tough diplomatic environment, however, it quickly became clear that cultural and educational exchanges could be an effective tool for embassy outreach, and for strengthening the people-to-people relationship between the world’s oldest republic and its youngest.

The challenges facing our embassy were enormous: working to end the civil war, containing the threat of famine, alleviating critical food insecurity, countering widely entrenched corruption and combating forced displacement, illiteracy, infectious diseases and widespread poverty. To describe the mission in positive terms, we promoted the resilience needed to build a lasting peace, to help heal the trauma that has touched every South Sudanese family, and to aid in building the conditions for development, good governance and hope.

Like U.S. diplomats around the world, we had powerful tools to tackle these challenges. As ambassador, I had high-level access to press political leaders in the government and opposition to do the right thing. The embassy was well situated to convene and coordinate with international partners and push for progress. We worked with the media to get information to decision-makers, influencers and the general public. We sponsored bilateral projects and multilateral programs to reduce food insecurity and invest in health and education. But few of our activities matched the return derived from our investment in cultural and educational exchanges — a result that will leave no American diplomat surprised.

In South Sudan, YALI was one of my most effective foreign-policy tools. The program invests in developing the next generation of African leaders, mainly by bringing promising young people to the United States for six weeks. It fosters lasting relationships between and among participants and builds skills and experience in business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public management.

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The idea is not new. State Department initiatives such as the Jazz Ambassadors and Fulbright programs started during the Cold War but remain a key part of U.S. foreign policy. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s and banned music, the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Pakistan stepped in to help Afghan musicians preserve their traditional music through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. In post-Soviet Tajikistan, relatively small investments to promote scholarships for the brightest high school students paid significant dividends in promoting trust and respect for the United States and democratic values.

These efforts remain relevant today because of their effectiveness in fostering mutual understanding and forging international ties. Despite more recent additions, such as the Sports Envoys and TechGirls programs, U.S. cultural and educational offerings aren’t nearly enough. We could and should do much more.

In South Sudan, I was always proud of our high-level diplomatic engagement, our multilateral leadership in the United Nations, as well as the direct pressure we applied to hammer out a peace agreement, fund humanitarian and development programs, and to stave off the worst aspects of violence, trauma, poverty and corruption. But my favorite diplomatic tool was promoting people-to-people relations.

There is no better example of the return on our investment than Thon, who played an instrumental role in helping the embassy’s public affairs section to re-establish reciprocal cultural exchanges. Following bouts of violence in Juba in 2013 and 2016, the embassy had discontinued bringing non-official Americans to South Sudan. But with a new peace agreement signed and local security beginning to improve, we wanted to test the waters. We found the ideal candidate through a connection Thon made during his YALI fellowship: Gail Prensky, the founder of the Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which specializes in using storytelling, film and music to help communities overcome trauma and build peace. The embassy brought Prensky and a small team to Juba to network with young South Sudanese artists and work with Thon to tell the story of the Promised Land school.

The result was a 2020 documentary film titled “Bullets to Books.” It continues to raise awareness in South Sudan and internationally about the challenges of providing quality education in a conflict environment. It has helped attract private donations to Promised Land to rebuild its rain-damaged temporary structures and create a permanent campus.

During more than three decades as an American diplomat, much of it serving in conflict or post-conflict zones, I learned the same lesson over and over: Cultural and educational interactions, in a low-cost and bottom-up approach, have a positive impact on millions of people and make U.S. diplomacy stronger.