Commentary: His gift changes lives

 A 30-year-old former refugee is putting together a most extraordinary present — the first high school his community has ever had.
         Valentino Deng, 30, is the central figure in the masterly 2006 best-seller “What Is the What,” by Dave Eggers. The book records Valentino’s life after the Sudanese civil war strikes his remote town in South Sudan. His friends were shot around him. He lost contact with his family, and he became one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. Fleeing government soldiers, dodging land mines, eating leaves and animal carcasses, Valentino saw boys around him carried off and devoured by lions.
         At one point, Valentino and other refugees were attacked by soldiers beside a crocodile-infested river. He swam to safety through water bloodied as some swimmers were shot and others were snatched by crocodiles.
         Valentino learned to read and write at makeshift schools in refugee camps by writing letters in the dust with his finger. Improbably, he turned out to be a brilliant student with a cheerful, upbeat personality. And in 2001, the United States accepted him as a refugee.
         Valentino had earned the right to rest for the next 600 years; instead, he sets an astonishing example of resilience, compassion and charity. He and Eggers channel every penny made from “What Is the What” to a new foundation dedicated to building a high school in his hometown in Sudan.
         Now Valentino’s school is beginning to operate in the town of Marial Bai — a modern high school serving students from thousands of square kilometers. It had a soft opening earlier this year with 100 students, and he is hoping to increase to 450 students in the coming months — but that means dizzying challenges.
         Valentino’s every step has been Herculean. Building supplies had to be trucked in from Uganda through a jungle where a brutal militia called the Lord’s Resistance Army murders, rapes and loots. There is no electricity or running water in Marial Bai, so the high school’s computers will have to run on solar power. When a microscope arrived the other day, a science teacher was overcome. He had never actually touched one.
         “What he’s accomplished in his hometown is astounding,” Eggers said. “A 14-structure educational complex built from scratch in one year. It boggles the mind.
         “He’s succeeded where countless NGOs stumble, mainly because he knows the local business climate and can negotiate reasonable local prices for materials,” he added, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
         “I’m the lucky one,” Valentino told me. “I must be the one who will make a difference.”