An incredible journey: From South Sudan to Maryville

MARYVILLE, Tenn (WVLT) Betty Asha was raised an orphan in South Sudan. In her village, it was custom for young girls to have arranged marriages to older men. Betty did not want to go down the traditional path, breaking the rules of her tribe.

Betty Asha and Chris Hurley pose for a picture on the eve of Betty's first day of class at Maryville College.

"I looked at it as something not good for me," said Asha. "I tried to resist it, so as a result of it I got into beatings."

While in South Sudan, Betty met an American named Chris Hurley who was in the region with a team of missionaries. Hurley, a Maryville native, just wanted to help make a difference in a country going through a devastating civil war.

"It was just simply a desire to find one little girl," said Hurley. " I wanted to try and help her out, try and change her life, maybe pay a few school fees, maybe have a little closer connection."

The connection that Betty and Chris had would soon turn into something neither of the two expected. With Chris's help, Betty would become the first person in the history of her village to receive a high school diploma. Shortly after, she helped save over 2,000 lives from South Sudan's war zone in just one month. After an attack on Betty's group, she realized it was time to get out of the country. Suddenly, she started to think about coming to the United States.

"I know that American education is more powerful than any other education," Asha said. "So I know that with American education, I will get things changed."

What followed was three failed attempts at obtaining a U.S. visa. After feeling that all hope was lost, Chris turned to the Maryville community and pushed for one final plea to immigration officials.

"We enlisted the help of senators, congressmen, even the First Lady," said Hurley. "This grass roots movement came up and thousands of people have written letters and post cards, and thankfully they granted her visa. Here she is."

Betty and Chris researched universities all across the country looking for the best fit for Betty, who wanted to double major in International Business Management and Political Science. What they discovered was Betty wouldn't have to go very far from Chris, staying right in his backyard at Maryville College. To make things even better, the college awarded Betty a prestigious four year International Scholarship.

Dr. Daniel Klingensmith, the Interim Vice President and Dean of the College at Maryville College, said Maryville is thrilled to have her and her inspirational story will benefit the students around her.

"I hope we do right by her," said Klingensmith. "She will certainly do right by us."

Betty walked on U.S. soil for the first time in her life on Thursday, and she began classes at Maryville College on Monday. After earning her degree, Betty plans to head back home to South Sudan, taking her newfound knowledge with her.

"I have never been to a country like this," said Asha. "I've seen that I will get power to lead my people and to change everything."

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