"Women and girls that we work with through Mercy Beyond Borders now believe in themselves and their abilities. They are obtaining the education and skills needed to secure employment and to advocate and improve the lives of other women in South Sudan and Haiti.”
In over 35 years of working with refugees around the world, Sister Marilyn Lacey had never witnessed conditions as devastating as those in South Sudan, the African country that gained independence in 2011 after four decades of civil war.
A Catholic nun and Sister of Mercy, Lacey, 69, from San Francisco, has worked in a number of refugee camps throughout the years and was director of immigrant and refugee programs for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, California, where she helped to resettle the boat people of Vietnam; “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” the young boys who were displaced and separated from their families during the Sudanese war; and refugees from dozens of other war-ravaged countries.
In 1992, she traveled to South Sudan for the first time and was appalled to find so many refugees facing hunger on an unimaginable scale, and even more shocked to learn how women and girls in that part of the world are treated. “Girls in South Sudan aren’t typically sent to school. They’re told their purpose in life is to serve their families, and when they reach puberty, their parents arrange for them to marry an older man,” Lacey says. “In return, the groom pays the girl’s family a dowry in the form of cattle.”
A report last year by the international advocacy organization ONE Campaign found that 73 percent of girls ages 6 to 11 in South Sudan are not in school. In addition, Lacey says, when violence breaks out in the country, families can be displaced several times, making it hard for children to regularly attend school. The country also ranks as the world’s second-worst performing in education, with poor facilities, few resources and one teacher for every 80 students.
In 2008, Lacey founded the nonprofit Mercy Beyond Borders to transform the lives of those who live in extreme poverty by providing scholarships and boarding for students at the first all-girl elementary school in South Sudan. The following year she published her memoir, This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers.
Unlike public schools in the United States that provide a free education, public schools in South Sudan charge tuition. Since many families can’t afford the cost, Mercy Beyond Borders helps to offset the fee. This year it is providing financial support to over 1,000 girls in elementary school and 330 more through high school and college scholarships.
With her upbeat personality and drive to help girls and women in South Sudan to realize their full potential, Lacey takes pride in the fact that there’s been no brain drain among her program’s alumnae: Graduates stay in South Sudan and work in nursing and teaching jobs. “The one positive side to living in a refugee camp is that the mothers and their daughters meet women who have become nurses and teachers, and the mothers want the education for their daughters that they never received,” Lacey says. “The men and fathers In South Sudan are still somewhat resistant.”
Lacey is also committed to supporting adult women in South Sudan by helping them learn skills to support their families and to gain self-esteem. Mercy Beyond Borders is currently providing micro-loans to female entrepreneurs and literacy classes. In addition to the business skills they learn, says Lacey, “they also gain self-worth and confidence in themselves.”
“This year we plan to expand our program to include women in the Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya,” says Lacey, who was notified in October that she was the recipient of this year’s Opus Prize, an annual faith-based humanitarian award. Lacey became the fourth American to win the Opus Prize since it was founded in 1994.
One of Lacey’s most ardent supporters, Paride Taban, a South Sudanese Catholic bishop and founder of the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, South Sudan, first met Lacey when he was on an international speaking tour to raise awareness about the brutal civil war. “I invited Marilyn to come and see the misery in which our people were engulfed, and I issued that same invitation as I spoke around the world — but Marilyn was the only one who came,” Taban says. “Mercy Beyond Borders now supports the education of hundreds of South Sudanese girls from kindergarten to university. This is a huge and positive change, as our culture has never supported girls going to school.”