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They told us our war would come, and we would instead be fighting for education and rights for our people, particularly the children
Okay, Tweed Heads to Sydney isn't a regular walk. It's a serious hike down a large section of Australia's eastern seaboard.
But for Sydney TAFE Community Studies student Zacharia Machiek, the 40-day, 800+ km journey is still almost a leisurely stroll compared to his life journey so far, much of which has been mired in trauma and violence.
Growing up in war-torn Sudan in the 1980s, Zacharia was one of 20,000 young boys who were separated from their families and villages, fleeing to escape the atrocities being carried out by the military from the north. These "lost boys of Sudan" fled to the relative safety of Ethiopia, trekking as much as 1,600kms on foot and facing the dangers of wild animals and insurgents along the way.
It was the Sudan People's Liberation Army that offered Zacharia safety and redemption, telling him that this wasn't his war to fight. It also offered him a clue to his future. "They told us our war would come, and we would instead be fighting for education and rights for our people, particularly the children," he said.
Many years later, living in Australia, married with two children of his own, Zacharia hasn't forgotten that message. And pursuing an education at Sydney TAFE, the words resonate all the more powerfully.
And so was born his vision of building a primary school in his South Sudan village. But he couldn't do it alone. So he turned to his TAFE teacher in Foundation Studies at Ultimo, Janet Dyne.
"Zacharia was my student at the time and he asked for my help with the paperwork to set up the Sudan Orphan Education Support (now the South Sudan Orphan Education Support," explains Janet. "We had lots of fundraising activities like morning teas, raffles and concerts, mostly on campus at Ultimo TAFE. But we knew we really had to ramp up the fundraising if the school in the village was ever going to become a reality. So that's how we came up with Hope Road: Walk for South Sudan."
Zacharia hopes that the much-publicised 800+ km journey will give a huge boost to the fundraising efforts so far. In total, Zacharia hopes to raise $300,000. However, it is anticipated that the first stage of the school, for grades one, two and three will open next year at a cost of $60,000, and this is the more modest target of the Hope Road Walk and follow up events for this year. Word has already spread to his home village where locals are doing their own bit – making thousands of clay bricks by hand, ready to be mobilized for use in construction of the school buildings.
The Walk for South Sudan finally drew to a triumphant close on Sunday 27 July. Zacharia was greeted at Milsons Point by a crowd of supporters, including members of the local South Sudanese community who sang and danced together against a spectacular harbour backdrop. Many of the supporters accompanied the Hope Road walkers across the bridge, along the Cahill Expressway and through the Botanical Gardens to Cathedral Square. Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia, met with them and addressed the gathering in an inspiring conclusion to the six week fundraising journey.
Zacharia appreciates full well the importance of education and how it can empower people and turn lives around. This is especially true of girls and women, who have even less access to proper education than many of their male counterparts. For this reason, the school in the village will be mostly for girls, a request made by the villagers themselves.
"It's about giving the children knowledge and power to help themselves," Zacharia said. "If we'd had education, we'd never have had a civil war that killed millions."
The project is supported by the Rotary Club of Sydney and all donations over $2 are tax deductible.
Donations can be made at www.ssoe.org.au or you can message Zacharia at www.facebook.com/HopeRoadProject/.
The following is an excerpt from a documentary video by filmmaker Tom Zubrycki, who has followed the entire project since day one. The footage shows Zacharia returning to his home village in South Sudan for the first time in 25 years to kick start the project and the greeting the villagers give him.
"Back to Ground Zero" from Tom Zubrycki on Vimeo.