From Kenyan Refugee Camp to Harvard University: The Story of Tito Kuol

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    A Collage of Tito Kuol At Alliance High School (2014) and When He Received His KCPE Results (2011)
    Tito Yak
  • Ignorance is bliss, but can also be dangerous. Imagine being offered a life changing opportunity, but on one condition: That you would leave your home, would you take it?

    What if you were told that you would not have to work for money and had everything at your disposal? I bet you would not think twice. Well those options  were nowhere close to what Kuol Tito Yak had.

    Tito was born in 1995 in Warrap State, Sudan now South Sudan. Although his family was certainly not one to describe as well-to-do, he and his siblings had food to eat and a roof over their heads.

    Coming from a pastoralist family, Kuol spent most of his early years in the fields, taking care of his father's cattle. To him, life was good. But as he watched over his father's herd, a thought kept ringing through his mind.

    An Undated Image of Tito Kuol (centre, in striped sweater) With Fellow Harvard Students
    Tito Yak

    Kuol wanted to go to school. However, he had no idea how to. First, there was no school and secondly, how would he get across the border to Kenya, a place he had only heard of?

    His two elder brothers had crossed to a world he was oblivious of. They had left for Kenya in 1999 and 2005 in search of an education, and as it would be, he wanted to be like them.

    As if the heavens heard his silent prayers, a cousin visiting from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana, Kenya, opened the door of hope for him.  He was sent by Kuol's elder brothers to take him to the camp to join school.

    "When I came home that evening, I had no clothes, I had no shoes. I was so shy to meet the visitor, but that was normal in my world," Tito narrated during a past address.

    After receiving the blessing of his parents, the two began a three-month long journey to Kakuma camp, picking other kids along the way. But Tito could not imagine what awaited him.

    His brothers were nowhere to be seen. Tito later learned that his brothers had been relocated  to Australia by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

    Relentless and well aware of why he left home, he  joined a school in the camp aged 10. Just as he settled in school, the development in his home country threatened to cut short his dream.

    The government and the leader of the rebel group settled their differences, bringing peace to the troubled nation. As a result, most Sudanese refugees began trooping back to their homes. 

    Amid the joy, word went round that the UN might close down the schools in the camp. Luckily, they did not. In 2007, Tito moved to Nairobi, where his two other brothers lived in Kawangware estate.

    As refugees, they barely had money and relied on stipends. They pulled strings and enrolled him to school, despite Tito not being able to read.

    "As of Class 6, I could barely read. I made arrangement with kindergarten teachers so that they would teach me for a while before their classes begun,"Kuol revealed in another interview.

    Tito put his heart and mind into his studies and soon, the little known refugee broke headlines. As the then Minister for Education, the late Prof. George Saitoti, mumbled through his name, Kuol Tito Yak, was announced the fourth best student in the country, in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams.

    The refugee from Uthiru  Genesis Day and Boarding School had scored 440 marks in the 2011 national test. While the  cameras pointed at him, he could not help but shed tears, remembering his journey.

    With a mind as sharp as a razor, Tito used the opportunity to declare that he wanted to join the Alliance High School.  He claimed his place, not sure of where he would get money to pay school fees.

    Soon, a well wisher, Mike Kariuki stepped in and decided to pay his entire high school tuition fees. He also took him in as part of his family.

    Four years later in 2015, Kuol replicated his performance, proving that it was not sheer luck. He soon began applying for universities, both locally and internationally.

    In December 2016, he received an email from Ivy-league university-Harvard. The institution had offered him an unlimited slot.

    “Harvard offers open admission. So I’ve not been admitted on any course. I will be allowed to study any course I want. I don’t want to make a rush choice now,” Yak stated.

    Kuol got a scholarship that would see him join one of the best universities in the world. Today, he has  told his story to different audiences including on TedYouth Talks.

    Not forgetting where he started from, he plans to build a school in his home village.

    An Undated Image Of Tito Kuol (Third from left) at Harvard University
    Tito Yak