Betty Asha has survived enough warfare, hunger and deprivation for 10 lifetimes.
She also became a fugitive in her native South Sudan when she and her American sponsor, Maryville’s Chris Hurley, organized a humanitarian rescue mission that saved almost 2,300 of her villagers, but no one will forget what happened when a kindly white-haired couple walked up to say hello during her public reception Sunday at Maryville College.
The 26-year-old woman’s eyes grew round when she saw Buford and Phyllis Hankins, more than a decade after they saved her life in Yei, South Sudan.
“I’ve been praying for this day,” Asha said as she hugged them.
“Me, too,” Phyllis Hankins replied.
Asha was a child when the couple visited her church for a morning service as missionaries.
“She led them in an English song, and when she was done, I said, ‘Thank you,’” Phyllis Hankins said. “She came over, put one hand on each side of my chair, leaned in and said, ‘Mama, I want to go to school.’”
Attending school is rare for South Sudanese girls, who must pay to attend.
Most are forced into arranged marriages when they are able to bear children, which also ends their education.
Asha’s dream — and her refusal to marry a village elder — nearly cost her her life, said her American sponsor, Chris Hurley.
Her family locked her inside to force her to change her mind.
“They beat her for several days and she almost died,” Hurley said.
Hurley and a cadre of supporters would spend the next 13 years navigating a frustrating maze of political red tape and visa hurdles to get her to the U.S. to study political science and business administration to prepare for a civil service career.
Ahmed Abdelrahman, Maryville College assistant director of international admissions, said he had helped to work to get her into the school since he began his job three years ago.
The wait was worth it, Asha said. “I’m feeling so excited. It’s so peaceful and interesting here.”
The best part is that Asha’s story is encouraging other girls to stand up to a system that oppresses women, said Steve Hollis, who helped bring her to the U.S.
“She’s just getting started,” Hollis said. “There are thousands of little girls looking up to her now. They have the guts to say ‘no’ to the men and to say ‘no’ to arranged marriages. They say, ‘Betty did it, and I’m going to, too.’ She’s blazing a trail and it feels good.”
Asha’s life has been a whirlwind of public and church meetings since her plane touched down Thursday, but Hurley was tickled at what amazes her.
“She reminded me of a kid riding a magic carpet,” Hurley said.
Hurley said Asha was amazed that Americans can park cars for free and that children have free public education.
“She said it so clean here,” Hurley said.
She also was shocked that Americans let their dogs in their homes, Hurley said with a grin.
“She enjoyed going in there and playing with the dog,” Hurley said. “We taught her how to use the microwave the other day and she was surprised. She said she didn’t have to build a fire to cook her food.”
The Western concept of freedom also has been an experience, he added.
“She’s not used to the fact that the women have rights and voice, and that men don’t call all of the shots,” Hurley said. “She got an iPhone and she cried. She said she never thought that she’d have something like that. She cried when she saw her dorm room. She thought it was the most beautiful place she’d ever seen and she couldn’t believe that she’d live there.”