The self-taught winner of the $1m Global Teacher Prize

Pakistani teacher Sister Zeph has made educating underprivileged children her life’s mission.

A Pakistani woman who dropped out at the age of 13 to establish her own school and tutor underprivileged girls was named the 2023 winner of the US$1 million Global Teacher Award. Sister Zeph, was announced as the winner in a ceremony in Paris organised by the founders of the award, the Varkey Foundation, in collaboration with UNESCO and Dubai Cares.

Chosen from a pool of more than 7,000 teachers across 130 countries, Sister Zeph comes from Gujranwala, Pakistan’s third largest industrial city. She says she faced discrimination at school due to her minority Christian background, and then after being abused by a teacher, she decided to leave for good.

But she did not give up on her education and as well as continuing to study by herself, she made a commitment to share her learning with other out-of-school children. Funding her endeavours by doing embroidery and working as a secretary, Sister Zeph, now 39, opened a classroom in the courtyard of her house and started by teaching her sister and her friends.

Today, she has two master’s degrees and has provided free education to more than 500 underprivileged students. She also runs self-defence classes for girls and a vocational centre that has helped train more than 6,000 women in ICT, textiles, and English.

Speaking at the RewirED Summit hosted by Dubai Cares at COP28, Sister Zeph, who plans on using the prize money to build a new school on a 10-acre plot of land, said: “The number of out of school children has surged by six million from 2021, soaring to an alarming total of 250 million worldwide. Behind these numbers lies unfulfilled potential, lost opportunities, and a future in jeopardy.”

Inclusive education, she added, “dismantles barriers, breaks the cycle of poverty, and empowers marginalised communities, forging a society where every voice is heard, every perspective, valued, and every individual empowered”.

“Inclusive education holds the key to transforming our world for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Sister Zeph, winner, Global Teacher Prize 2023

The Global Teacher Prize was established in 2015 by the UK-based Varkey Foundation, the philanthropy of the family behind Dubai’s GEMS Education conglomerate. The largest of its kind in the sector, the prize is presented annually to exceptional teachers who have made outstanding contributions to their communities.

Previous winners include: American Keishia Thorpe, who channelled her own experience of racism support for immigrant students and their families; Science teacher Peter Tabichi from Kenya; Andrea Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from the UK, and Indian village teacher Ranjitsinh Disale.

Congratulating Sister Zeph, Sunny Varkey, said: “Your incredible story shows the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow.”

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Actor and writer Stephen Fry, UNESCO assistant director general Stefania Giannini, and GEMS CEO Dino Varkey (far-right) present Sister Zeph with the Global Teacher Prize at UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris. Photo: UNESCO

In 2021, the Varkey Foundation partnered with, the advocacy and research arm of US-based education technology company Chegg, to launch the $100k Global Student Prize, to recognise extraordinary students making a difference in their communities through education.

This year’s award went to Nhial Deng, a South Sudanese refugee who has empowered more than 20,000 refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma camp through peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, and education programmes. He was selected from a pool of 4,000 students in 122 countries.

Deng’s family were forced to flee their native South Sudan after the first Sudanese civil war to Ethiopia, where he was born.  But at the age of 11, new armed conflict and violence in the small Ethiopian village where they had settled forced him back on the move, and this time, he was separated from his family. Young Deng walked for two weeks to reach Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which became his home for the next 10 years.

In 2017, he founded the Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors initiative, offering workshops and mentoring to young people living in Kakuma. Some of his other initiatives also include a leadership and advocacy program for young girls to promote gender equality and connect them with female mentors around the world.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he also set up a life-saving digital awareness campaign reaching more than 40k people in the camp which targeted misinformation on the virus and listing credible facts and sources from the World Health Organisation and the Kenyan health ministry.

After being announced as the winner, he said that he would dedicate 50 percent of the prize money to set up a library and community centre in Kakuma refugee camp where he grew up to continue providing a space and resources to conduct leadership, peacebuilding, and life skills workshops for refugee youth.

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One of Deng's initiatives was establishing a leadership programme to empower and educate young girls living in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya.

For Deng, winning the Global Student Prize means gaining a powerful platform to advocate for inclusive education, peacebuilding, and entrepreneurship programmes, and to amplify the impact of his initiatives in Kakuma refugee camp.

“The true prize we should seek in the world is one where peace, education, and dreams are not luxuries, but basic human rights for every child,” the 24-year-old said in a keynote speech at RewirED. “Everywhere from Palestine to Afghanistan, from South Sudan to Venezuela, Angola to Myanmar. Every child deserves a chance to learn in peace and thrive.”

He added: “My story is not remarkable, or in other words, it is the story of millions of people. As I'm sure most of you are aware, Today, one percent of the global population is displaced due to conflict, violence, climate change, and persecution,” he said.

Deng is now studying global studies and communications at Huron University in Canada, where he also received refugee status, and has also been working with World Vision Canada since March 2023 as a consultant and coordinator for refugee education.

Commenting on Deng’s win, head of, Heather Halto Porter, said: “Nhial has overcome unimaginable adversity to keep fighting for a better future, not just for himself, but for thousands like him. In times of crisis, we need innovation and resilience, and Nhial’s commitment to tackling the global refugee crisis is truly inspirational.”

Previous winners of the Global Student Prize include Igor Klymenko from Ukraine for his work on raising awareness about landmines, and Sierra Leonean student, Jeremiah Thoronka, for his invention of a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power. - PA

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Nhial Deng now lives in Canada, where he is studying global studies and communications at Huron University College.

“The true prize we should seek in the world is one where peace, education, and dreams are not luxuries, but basic human rights for every child.”

Nhial Deng, winner Global Student Prize 2023