Fargo woman puts dreams on hold to address critical needs of orphaned girls in Sudan
Somewhere in the depths of Deb Dawson's pile of unfinished creations, a full-length memoir manuscript waits for its shining moment.
The story, carrying the working title "Someone Else's Children," is an exploration of motherhood and marriage sparked by her and her husband, Norm Robinson's, adoption of two orphaned Russian girls from Siberia.
It's an account she'd like to see through to completion in time. But for now, the unbound book collects dust with a few other projects the local artist and philanthropist set in motion but never finished.
More urgent matters compel her these days - namely, girls in the African country of Sudan who, also orphaned, face unimaginable fates without intervention. Among the possibilities are being married off for a dowry at puberty.
During one of her visits to the area that's become a second home to her in recent years, Dawson learned of a 16-year-old who was having her hair plaited in preparation to be married to a 50-year-old man.
"She had belt marks from where she'd been beaten because she'd resisted marrying this guy," Dawson says.
None of the girls who find their way to the newly opened boarding school Dawson helped found through the nonprofit African Soul American Heart will be in such a position.
In exchange for meeting the girls' needs, including everything from food and hygiene to their education up through technical school or college, their guardians agree not to remove the girls from the program for marriage. "It is a safe haven for these girls, no question about it," Dawson says.
Currently, 10 girls are enrolled during this school year, and Dawson hopes to add 40 more as funds become available.
What makes ASAH different than some programs, she says, is that rather than tossing money somewhere, there's an effort to stay in touch, be physically present when possible, and empower the community to find its own way.
The organization also aims to provide the girls what they need to become leaders so they might someday assist their own communities, and offer inspiration for other girls and women in the area to seek the same.
Dawson knew nothing prior to 2007 about the remote village of Duk Payuel in southern Sudan. But that summer, she met Joseph Akol Makeer, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" who'd escaped his country's civil war and ended up in Fargo. The meeting forever changed the trajectory of her life.
"It was not my choice," she says of being led to Duk Payuel of all places in the world. "In fact, so many of the things in my life have chosen me instead of me choosing them."
But when Makeer started talking to her about how he'd raised his younger siblings, and how much he wanted to help his home country now that a peace agreement had been signed, Dawson was drawn in.
"People were slowly returning to the country, and to an area where there's no development. If there were villages, many had been burned, but in many cases there wasn't much there to begin with," she says. "Orphans were really suffering there, and he thought if he could make a movie to show this, and if American people saw it, they might want to help."
It was the right time for her to pursue such an endeavor. Dawson's children - seven in all from two marriages - were grown, and she'd just completed a master's degree in fine arts, which involved the completion of several short films.
Through collaborating with Makeer and others, the documentary, "African Soul, American Heart," was created and, in 2008, premiered at the Fargo Film Festival.
The project brought Dawson to Sudan for the first time; to a refugee camp as well as the village Makeer had escaped 20 years earlier at age 10.
"We were met literally by the entire community. There were hundreds of people waiting for us at the airstrip," she says. "For the 'Lost Boys' to return, that's a big thing because they are the hope of their generation."
Once on site, there was no going back to the way things had been.
Through her keen photographic eye and compassionate heart, along with her strong business sense from years working for Pitney Bowes in Denver and her family's insurance business, Dawson brought the story of one small, wounded corner of the world to our community a half-globe away.
And though it meant setting aside some dreams, she says the project in Sudan feels more immediate and far-reaching than anything else she's undertaken.
"I walk all over that village and people come out of their huts to greet me. The men call me 'Mama Debra' and the women call me 'Debra Deet,'" she says. " 'Deet' is like an expression of respect to say at the end of somebody's name. I feel completely welcomed everywhere I go."
Kevin Brooks, English department chairperson at North Dakota State University, met Dawson shortly after her introduction to Makeer, and has been an integral part of ASAH since its beginnings. He says Dawson's willingness "to take on massive, almost unimaginable projects," has been impressive, and her perseverance outpaces anyone he's known.
"She has a heart the size of North Dakota," Brooks says, "and that probably gets her into a lot of difficult situations, but in the end she makes a tremendous, tangible difference in the lives of the people she meets."
Jane Fercho Ludlow has known Dawson since their toddler years. Their parents are former neighbors and longtime friends, and though Ludlow has lived in Pennsylvania the past 27 years, she loves visiting Dawson whenever she's in town.
"She's such a devoted friend and has so much life experience," Ludlow says. "In addition to what she's doing in Sudan, if there's a friend in need she'll just fly out, to California or to the East Coast. That's the kind of person she is."
In college, the girls remained neighbors, living across the hall from one another in a dormitory at the University of North Dakota.
"I consider her extremely strong, intelligent, and she's not afraid at all to go off the beaten path, to take a stand and work for things she believes in," Ludlow says. "She's had a lot of challenges in her life ... but she comes through these problems with grace."
Her compassion combined with passion, communications skills and adeptness in areas like photography are why Dawson has made such an impact in Sudan, Ludlow adds. "It's a unique combination, and she's just a classy, extraordinary person."
But Dawson is the first to downplay her role, saying anyone could do what she's doing. She just happened to answer a call when a need arose, though she's glad to have been summoned.
A recent letter from one of the girls at the boarding school affirmed that ASAH is making a difference. In her note, the student revealed that in her former life, she was suffering. "I wore only dirty clothes and I slept on the floor," she wrote, adding that she's finally happy at the compound, and that her life has not only been changed but saved.
"You know, when I'm dead and gone, in Sudan, maybe no one will ever remember I was there," Dawson says, "but there will be some girls there whose lives will be changed because I was there, and also people working there whose lives will be changed because I followed through on someone's desire to help."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Roxane Salonen at (701) 241-5587