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When he was four years old, Manyang Reath Kher became a refugee. Born in Sudan, Kher had been displaced as a result of the country's civil war. His father died in the conflict, and he was separated from his mother and sister. He spent the next 13 years of his life as a Lost Boy, living in different camps scattered across the Sudan-Ethiopia border.
Kher came to the United States in 2005, when he was 17. Since then, Kher has founded the Humanity Helping Sudan Project, a nonprofit aimed at giving assistance to members for the Sudanese diaspora now living along that same border where Kher spent most of his adolescence. One arm of the nonprofit is 734 Coffee, a coffee company that sources its beans directly from Sudan and Ethiopia. The coffee is sold online, and a portion of the profits are funneled directly to South Sudanese refugees dealing with conditions much like the ones Kher faced in his life, providing funds for them to raise chickens, create fishing nets, and grow crops.
I spoke to Kher about the genesis of 734 Coffee, what food meant to him during those years of profound instability, and how these experiences have shaped his approach to his line of work today. Here he is, in his own words.
MANYANG REATH KHER: The name “734” (7.9220°N and 34.1532°E) relates to the geographical coordinates of Gambela, a region in Ethiopia where more than 200,000 South Sudanese citizens have taken refuge.
Each year, my organization, Humanity Helping Sudan Project, hosts several events that promote refugee awareness through churches, schools, universities, and other partnerships. The newest way that we are raising awareness is through 734 Coffee, our refugee-owned and operated coffee company. We contract with co-op coffee growers in Gambela who employ South Sudanese refugees, providing both a sense of purpose and a steady paycheck.
This region is a big part of my history, my story. I am a Sudanese refugee. I lived in camps from the time I was four until I came to the United States at the age of 17. I faced starvation, sickness, and horrifying injuries. I survived 13 years in three different refugee camps amidst horrid conditions with little to no food. We were fed only one meal a day so hunger was part of everyday life. There were three types of foods in rotation at the camp: corn, wheat, and beans. We were provided a certain amount [of food] to last the month, so we had to calculate how much we could eat each day. We had to discipline ourselves in such a way that we would not be tempted to eat more. As time went on, it became easier, but there were definitely times when another group would commit what seemed like the ultimate sin and steal some of our starch. Those were some of the hardest months to cope with.
Getting to America was not easy. I had to wait for five years and undergo seven interviews and three medical checks in order to gain approval. On top of that, I had to find an organization to sponsor me. I was fortunate that Commonwealth Catholic Charities stepped in and agreed to be my sponsor. With their help, I relocated to Richmond, Virginia, in 2005.
When I arrived, I did not speak English and had no formal education. I was blessed to have caring people who took interest in me and looked after me. Joining the track team at my high school contributed greatly to my adaptation to America. I worked hard and completed my secondary education and received a college degree in International Relations in May of 2015. Although there are still many aspects of American life that are foreign to me, I can say that I am well acclimated at this point.
I have been advocating for refugees for nearly 10 years. There are currently more than 60 million displaced people in the world. I wish that I could tell every single one of their stories because of my own experience. I understand that once people are aware of their story, they feel a moral responsibility to help. In South Sudan alone, there are more than 2.25 million people displaced across its borders, facing poverty and famine.
At the core of 734 Coffee is the promise to tell the story of the world refugee crisis and give new hope for the economic prosperity and self-sustainability of Sudanese refugees. Our greatest challenge of sustaining 734 Coffee as a business at the moment is gaining greater exposure. We are capable of scaling with the added exposure that will connect our story to the right audience: the change-makers of the world.
Kher has connected with many people through Purpose, an agency that works with UNICEF to build communities that support refugee resettlement through its Refugees Welcome dinner series. To learn more about Purpose and the work they do, head here. Learn more about 734 Coffee here.