Since December 2013, the devastating war in South Sudan has displaced nearly four million people and claimed thousands of lives. While many have fled within the country, more than two million people have tried to find safety in neighboring countries.
In this Portrait of the Month, we introduce you to Deng Bulis Bartalam, who fled South Sudan when war broke out in his country and had been living in Ethiopia since September 2011.
He returned to South Sudan briefly but went back to Ethiopia, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in public health. When war broke out in Ethiopia, he had to seek refuge again. Deng Bulis is now a DAAD In-Country / In-Region Scholar pursuing a Master’s program in Public Health at Mount Kenya University in Thika Town, Kenya.
We had the opportunity to interview Deng Bulis:
Please tell us more about yourself:
My name is Deng Bulis Bartalam, a South Sudanese refugee living in Sherkole camp in Ethiopia.
I am currently pursuing my master of public health at Mount Kenya University, Kenya.
How did you flee your country and how was it settling and studying in Ethiopia?
Before we fled Sudan, we lived in Kurmuk, a county on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. I attended my primary school there peacefully until September 2011, when the clashes erupted between the Sudan government and the SPLA(Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
Many houses were burnt, and many people were killed. My brother and I rushed into the bush where we hid before crossing the border. We then crossed the border to Ethiopia, where we spent our night with other Sudanese in a house. The following day we were received by the UNHCR and brought to the Sherkole refugee camp.
While in Sherkole, we were given shelter and food rations. We got registered as refugees a month later and enrolled at the primary school.
In 2014, I decided to return to South Sudan and see my mother, whom I had never met after the incident. While in South Sudan, I met Christine Rebstock, who later sponsored me to attend college, where I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Public Health in Ethiopia.
How was the situation when another conflict arose in Ethiopia?
When another war arose in Ethiopia, almost all the services for refugees were suspended. We faced challenges getting our usual monthly ration on time.
You are now pursuing a Master’s in Public Health at Mount Kenya University. How did you learn about this programme? How did you learn about the DAAD In-Country/In-Region scholarship?
The first time I learned about DAAD was through a friend who was studying in Germany at the time. He sent me a link about the DAAD Leadership for Africa Scholarship Programme. I applied but unfortunately got rejected. I did not give up there. Again, the DAAD launched another scholarship (In-Country/In-Region), where I applied and got accepted to pursue a master’s in public health at Mount Kenya University, Kenya.
I was very excited when I got the acceptance letter. To me, it was a dream come true.
What was your situation like during the Corona Pandemic?
During the pandemic, the situation was horrible, particularly in relation to COVID-19 movement restrictions. We had to stay within the camp, with no financial support, just waiting for the monthly ration.
What was your journey to MKU like? What was the most difficult part of your journey to Kenya and to MKU?
It was not an easy journey to Mount Kenya University. I was supposed to join my studies at Mount Kenya University in September/2021 but had challenges getting my visa from Kenya. Again, after getting my visa, I could not get the exit visa from Ethiopia on time.
The most challenging part of my journey was travelling from Addis Ababa to Nairobi by bus. I was stranded at the border due to the shortage of the fare to Nairobi. So I had to call my friends who were in Nairobi for support.
On my arrival at MKU, I was warmly welcomed by the staff. They assisted me in the admission process and provided accommodation and other services. I was really touched by the support the university has provided.
I think Mount Kenya University is one of the best universities I have ever attended. I am very grateful for their hospitality.
How can the DAAD reach more potential students in the refugee camps?
I propose that DAAD delegate students who live in the refugee camps to assist fellow students.
Another way of reaching students could be through phone calls because most students, especially in Sherkole, have little or no access to the internet.
What are your plans?
I would like to work for an international non-profit organization, particularly on health-related projects. I also have a plan to pursue my doctorate in the future.
Would you like to add anything? Do you have a message for refugees who are also interested in studying?
“NEVER GIVE UP!” In life, regardless of what you do, there are always difficult times. Keep pushing through those times, and don’t lose hope.
Thank you very much Mr. Deng Bulis Bartalam; we wish you all the best in your studies and the years ahead!