Grace Faraja Nkundabantu spent much of her time in refugee camps growing up, fighting to survive with her family as civil war raged in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They moved from camp to camp, and they often slept on the ground without much food or water. Sometimes, Nkundabantu said they would be lucky enough to find somewhere to rest their heads for the night.
Pushed into survival mode, she and her siblings lost access to their education.
“When it did hit in my country and we were forced to leave, there was nowhere for us to go to school because we were hiding and we were running away and saving our lives,” Nkundabantu said. “So there was [no chance to think] about school.”
During the war, children throughout the Congo were unable to attend school, and even now, families all over central Africa have difficulties finding schooling for their kids because they don’t have access to a free, quality basic education.
So when Nkundabantu made her way to the U.S., she created the African Girls Hope Foundation, an international nonprofit based in Forsyth County that works to provide girls in central Africa with the tuition and supplies they need to attend school.
What the foundation is all about
Created nearly three years ago, the foundation now serves 160 girls through programs that connect them with a sponsor who helps to fund their tuition, which is around $350 for a year, or provide school supplies, menstrual products and other essential items that girls need to attend school.
Through the program, girls create video updates to send back to sponsors and show them how their lives have been impacted by education. Nkundabantu said the hope is that one day, the girls will be able to find success in life and pass down this help and support to their own communities in the future.
“What I’m trying to share with them is giving back is very important,” Nkundabantu said. “No one else will understand the struggle of what we went through. You are the first person to do it. Don’t wait for another person to do it. You do it, and then you share what you’re doing. That’s how you change our community. That’s how we help our community.”
Nkundabantu said she holds workshops for girls who come to the U.S. to share with them how education changed her own life and inspired her to also help others.
No tuition, no school
After moving around to different countries as refugees, Nkundabantu’s family eventually settled in Kenya. It was there that she was finally able to continue her education and successfully earn her first college degree.
It was still a struggle for her and her family.
Her dad always worked as a pastor at different churches in central Africa, and even after running from the conflict in the Congo, he was able to continue that work in Kenya. This meant, though, that Nkundabantu’s parents didn’t have enough money to help pay for her schooling.
“With education in Africa, if you don’t have cash, you don’t go to school,” Nkundabantu said. “And there are no federal loans there. There is no FAFSA there. It’s either your parents have it or not.”
Knowing it would be difficult, Nkundabantu enrolled for her first year at a Christian university in the country. Through her first semester, she was able to get into a work-study program to help pay for tuition, and in that time, she fell in love with the school.
Not only was she earning great grades in her classes, but she also became involved as a missions coordinator, holding Christian events in surrounding countries, and in a singing group at the school.
“But at some point, the finance department could not accept me anymore to continue because I had a huge balance,” Nkundabantu said. “So … in my second year, I was completely out of school.”
She was sure at that point she wouldn’t be able to finish her education.
‘I’ll do the same for others’
Although she had been kicked out of school, Nkundabantu said her music teacher was still supportive of her. The teacher ended up calling her, asking her to join them in singing for a group of visitors at the school.
Nkundabantu said she was hesitant, but her teacher insisted.
A few weeks after performing, Nkundabantu got a second call from her music teacher telling her a group of American visitors loved her performance and asked about her after their meetings.
When they were told she had been removed from the school because she had not paid her tuition balance, they wanted to help. Her music teacher told her over that phone call they had offered her a full scholarship to complete school and earn her degree.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Nkundabantu said. “I told my dad, and my dad was like, ‘You know, the God you serve will never let you down.’ And I went back to school. I finished my first degree in accounting and economics, and I remember telling my friends at my graduation, ‘I’ll do the same for others.’ God helped me to be a blessing for others.”
She graduated in 2007 and moved to America in 2008. In 2009, she got her first job translating documents for a company in New Hampshire, but also started to support her first girl back in Kenya, sending funds to help pay for her tuition.
Now, that same girl is in college, ready to graduate within the next year.
Before officially beginning the foundation, Nkundabantu wanted to finish her own education. She later earned her master’s in global management, and she finished her doctorate last January.
“I wanted to be the example that, when I go back and talk about the importance of education, I know what I’m talking about from my personal experience, not just giving examples of others,” Nkundabantu said. “I wanted to be that person that I can mentor, I can support, I can give counseling, I can help these girls who are sick of going through what I went through.”
Bridging the gap
Nkundabantu began the African Girls Hope Foundation in 2018 specifically to help support girls who may have been orphaned because of struggles in central African nations.
Through her master’s and doctorate studies, she focused much of her time on understanding the educational gap seen between boys and girls in these countries, and she started asking her parents, relatives and her friends their thoughts on that gap.
“One of the seniors told me [that] educating girls is a waste of money to us because, at 14 years old, she’s ready to go for marriage,” Nkundabantu said. “In the village, nobody thinks of raising an attempt to educate girls because they say, ‘She’s going to belong to this other family. Why [are we] wasting our time and she’s not going to be beneficial to us?’”
She said this way of thinking is why many families in central African countries remain below the poverty line. They rely on one person, the man in the family, to be the sole income winner.
When a man in the family becomes sick or dies, the family loses their income and kids can no longer attend school. This became more prevalent in the Congo throughout the civil war.
“[About] 99% of the kids we have [at the African Girls Hope Foundation], they are orphaned by war,” Nkundabantu said. “These are kids who experience the killing of their parents face to face.”
Through the foundation, she hopes to bridge some of these gaps in education and wealth and help girls who may have nowhere else to turn to for support.
“We want to see these girls become the agents of change in the next generation,” Nkundabantu said. “These girls will become the leaders in their families, in their communities, in their villages and in their nations. That’s the main purpose for why I’m doing African Girls Hope Foundation.”
How to support the foundation
While Nkundabantu said she is proud of how far the foundation has come, she wants it to continue to grow and help as many girls as possible to receive an education.
“But we cannot do it by ourselves,” she said.
The foundation is currently recruiting volunteers who can help with fundraising and social media marketing campaigns, and Nkundabantu said they always need community members, sponsors or donors willing to help pay for tuitions and school supplies.
Those interested are able to pick a specific child they would like to sponsor for $30 per month through the website, www.africangirlshope.org. Once sponsors choose a child, they can connect with them, and they will send videos as a thank you for their support.
Community members can also make a one-time or monthly donation.
The foundation will also soon hold its annual gala on Dec. 4, which is their biggest fundraising event of the year.
While full details have not been determined, Nkundabantu said the gala will be held in Marietta and open to anyone interested in coming. Her goal for the event this year is to raise enough money for each of the 160 kids to have access to an education for all of next year.
“If I can change the life of a girl, I know this girl will change the life of another girl,” Nkundabantu said. “The same way the Americans who came to Africa for the visit, they changed my life. If they did not do what they did for me, maybe I would not be who I am today.”