Debra Dawson is the President of African Soul, American Heart (ASAH) based in Fargo, North Dakota. The mission of this organization is to educate, protect, and empower orphans from the Republic of South Sudan. “Today, ASAH is doing things we are doing more than we ever envisioned… this has become my life’s work to fulfill the promise I made to these orphans,” explained Dawson.
The Promise Made
As a child, Debra Dawson grew up in Fargo where her family owned an insurance company. She earned a degree in elementary education, French, and English from the University of North Dakota and moved to Denver to teach for several years. “It was in the 1980s when my father wrote me to ask if I would join the family business again in Fargo… and that is how I eventually connected with my passion for ASAH today,” said Dawson.
Upon returning to the Fargo area, Dawson earned a master’s in creative writing from Minnesota State University Moorhead and connected with Joseph Akol Makeer. Makeer told Dawson about his journey as a Lost Boy of Sudan coming to the United States. “I was drawn to his story because my first husband was a half Japanese war orphan and I have 3 adopted daughters from South Korea and Russia,” explained Dawson.
Dawson and Makeer laid the foundation for what is today known as African Soul, African Heart that primarily helps orphan girls from Duk Payuel in South Sudan. “The plan from the beginning was to organize efforts to help the village where Joseph was from in Sudan…. and he would become the mouthpiece for our efforts here in Fargo,” said Dawson. However, after earning a degree in criminal justice from North Dakota State University, Joseph returned to Africa to work.
This change in plans did not detour Dawson from completing the work set out to help the orphans connected to ASAH. After taking the first trip to Africa to visit the orphans, Dawson returned to Fargo with a vision to build housing to provide shelter for the girls. In 2012, Dawson was in Africa to see the foundation laid for the new facility. However, a rebel group came through in 2014 and destroyed the building, causing ASAH to shift its focus from providing shelter to securing the future of the 43 orphans in their program. “We found our girls in 11 refugee camps across Africa…. we have since moved them to an amazing school in Uganda,” explained Dawson.
The Ongoing Work
The services provided by ASAH include education, activities, health, and empowerment for these orphans. “We are helping these girls with health needs, educating them, offering a way other than arranged marriage at a young age, and providing a place to live that is like a family,” said Dawson. The school year for the students begins in February and ends in early December with a few month-long breaks during May and August. ASAH offers the orphans field trips, sports, computer, and even Girl Scout opportunities during this non-education time.
The future success for ASAH is in the growth and education of these 43 orphans. “Our goal is to advocate for these girls here in Fargo by educating supporters with documentaries, images, and handwritten notes from our girls,” explained Dawson. The work of ASAH is available because of generous sponsors and creative events such as the Underwear and Underwrite event to gather needed items for the girls.
Learn more from Debra Dawson and African Soul, American Heart as she speaks at 1 Million Cups Fargo on Wednesday, October 18th, 2017 at 9:15 a.m. at The Stage at Island Park.