Morris Wani and his wife, Josephine Labib, fled South Sudan during a 22-year civil war that left two million dead. Fearing persecution from rebels and unable to find work in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries, they wanted more for their children and sought refuge in the United States.
The couple worked minimum-wage jobs while learning to speak English, and in time, earned college degrees. After 18 years in America, Wani and Labib say they still struggle financially, but are excited for their children’s future.
The couple’s 16-year-old twins, Cyndi and Mark Wani of Cary, N.C., have received full scholarships to attend the United World College-USA this fall.
UWC opens doors in so many ways. The school traditionally enrolls 235 students from more than 90 countries. Students challenge themselves through academics, service and experiential education, including a wilderness program. This place-based experience embraces the cultural diversity of New Mexico and natural resources.
“I was really excited when I got in,” said Cyndi Wani, who looks forward to a new learning environment and being with students who share her ideals.
“I’m just so grateful for the opportunity put in front of me,” added Mark Wani, who’s excited for the unexpected and meeting teens from around the world.
The twins are among some 60 U.S. students selected as this year’s Davis Scholars. Recipients are awarded a merit award of $25,000 annually toward tuition at the international high school. Additional aid of up to full tuition for the two-year program is also available based on need.
The Davis Scholar program is named for philanthropist Shelby M.C. Davis, founder of and a senior adviser to Davis Selected Advisers, a mutual fund management company, who funded the scholarship program some 20 years ago.
Nearly half of this year’s Davis Scholars will attend the New Mexico campus. The rest of the scholarship recipients have been chosen to attend one of 17 additional UWC campuses around the world. Students earn an international baccalaureate.
German educator Kurt Hahn founded the United World College in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Hahn believed that much could be done to overcome religious, cultural and racial misunderstanding if young people from all over the world could be brought together to live and learn.
Morris Wani, 52, and Labib, 46, are excited for their children.
“I know they work hard,” Labib said. “We struggle, but I feel like it will be great for them. They will meet other people from other parts of the world and other cultures. Maybe they will get scholarships to college.”
The couple initially fled to Cairo from South Sudan before applying for asylum to the United States.
“There was conflict in the south and a lot of fighting for independence in the north,” Morris Wani said. “There was no freedom of worship. If you wanted to study medicine, they will not let you. There were a lot of human rights violations.”
On June 14, 2002, the family arrived in Orange County, Calif., where the cost of living is 50 percent higher than the national average. They lived there for seven years. Labib initially worked in the kitchen at a nursing home for $7.25 an hour. Her husband worked in an electronics assembly plant for $8 an hour. Both also had to learn English before going to college.
“It was tough,” Labib said. “We didn’t have a car and were living in a one-bedroom apartment. The rent was $875 a month.”
In time, Labib graduated from California State University Fullerton and is now an accountant with North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Her husband graduated from Barton College in Wilson, N.C., and is a nurse at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C.
The family learned about UWC from an older cousin, who attended UWC Red Cross Nordic in Norway.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Mark Wani said. “I didn’t understand the meaning of it and did more research. At first, I thought there was no way I could go.”
Honor students at Cary High School, Mark and Cyndi Wani just completed their junior year. Mark Wani ran track as a freshman and sophomore before switching to wrestling, and belongs to the African Americans and Environmental clubs, and Club Unify. For the latter, he plays sports with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Mark Wani would like to pursue a career in aerospace engineering.
Cyndi Wani is a cheerleader, member of the student council, and participates in dance and tutoring. She is interested in becoming either a journalist or lawyer.
Both are involved with the non-profit North Carolina South Sudanese Youth Group, advocating for awareness as South Sudanese people’s rights.
Cyndi Wani said she and her brother are very close.
“We have this weird twin connection,” she said. “We have a similar understanding, and I have a lot of love for him.”
Their oldest brother, David Felix, 27, is a factory worker. Another brother, Benjamin Felix, 26, works in sales and marketing, while their sister, Ketty Felix, 20, is a daycare worker.
“We thank God,” Labib said. “It’s always good when you go to a town, or another country. If you follow through, you will get through it. We never gave up. We continue to stay positive for our family.”
Applicants to UWC and the Davis Scholars program must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and be either 16 or 17 years old on Sept. 1 of the year they intend to enroll. The application deadline for fall of 2021 is Dec. 1, 2020.