How Steve Nguyen turned children’s fight for education into inspiring #UpForSchool film

Child soldiers, Girls' education, Up for School or #upforschool campaign

THE CONCEPT was simple. A short film about the struggles of children around the world to get an education – told through real-life stories.

THE REASON was clear. Raise awareness about the millions of children who do not go to school and pressure world leaders to take urgent action.

THE RESULT is stunning. An animated video – both inspirational and poignant – with a hip hop music track that tells how three young people overcame overwhelming odds to gain an education.

R I S E – made by Vietnamese-American director, writer and producer Steve Nguyen – was premiered at the #UpForSchool Town Hall in New York in September. The event marked the handover of the #UpForSchool Petition – a youth-led campaign of 10 million signatures from around the world, telling the United Nations that every child should be in school.

To celebrate Universal Children’s Day on November 20, here is the story behind the making of a remarkable short film that encapsulates the dreams and desires of marginalised children for an education and a better life.



A World at School launched the #UpForSchool Petition in September, 2014. For the next year, we worked with partner organisations around the world to gather an incredible 10 million signatures to hand to world leaders.

The petition stated: “We are standing up to bring an end to the barriers preventing girls and boys from going to school, including forced work and early marriage, conflict and attacks on schools, exploitation and discrimination.”

When the #UpForSchool Town Hall event was being planned, we knew there would be celebrities, supporters, politicians, partners and hundreds of young people packed into Manhattan’s historic Town Hall. What we needed was a show-stopper – a big statement about the struggle of children for education.



Caroline MacAulay, who works for A World at School in Los Angeles, said: “We became aware that Steve knew about us in early March, when he shared the #UpForSchool hashtag with his large Twitter following.

“We reached out to him and he was eager to help, which was thrilling. We knew that not only could he add to the campaign using his tremendous talents as a director and producer but he could also assist us in reaching a new audience – his very active, loyal and passionate fan base.”

Steve and Choz Belen run Studio APA, specialising in making animated films and music videos. The drawings of Steve and Choz above are from their website. Caroline met Steve to explain A World at School’s mission to help bring about change and get every child a qualIty education.

“I was pretty active on social media after being inspired to see a petition which was collecting millions of signatures from around the world,” said Steve. “Education was always a big cause for me – my family have always stressed its importance and I really believe that it helps to save lives.”

They agreed to get involved. Steve said: “The goal was to do something for the Town Hall but we didn’t know exactly what.”



The creative pair met A World at School staff in New York just two months before the event to discuss what to do next.

“We talked about what would reach the kids, what would be the message,” said Steve. “We wanted to do something with music because music resonates on a much bigger scale. It reaches the kids, it reaches the adults and moves people.

“Combined with what we do and blending visuals, it tells a more compelling story than just using dialogue.”

It was decided. Steve and Choz would use animation and music to tell of the struggle for education through the eyes of A World at School’s Global Youth Ambassadors – our amazing network of 500 young activists in 85 countries.

It was especially apt, as our GYAs had gone door to door, village to village to collect more than one million signatures for the petition.



Steve explained: “We were told about several Global Youth Ambassadors and eventually picked three stories that captivated us. So we talked to them by Skype, listened to their stories and got them to send us pictures of themselves as kids. We had to understand the spirit of these people.”

The three GYAs selected were Mohamed Sidibay, Yaaseen Edoo and Ijeoma Idika-Chima.

When Mohamed was three years old, rebel gunmen in Sierra Leone burst into his home and murdered his parents and his brother and sister. He was abducted and forced to become a child soldier for the next seven years.

He said: “My scenes in the film start with a quote from me about your past and present making you who you are. It then shows a young boy who was forced from his home and into a of life of being forced to kill or be killed. His redemption came after the war when he was made to believe in the power of education.”

Steve added: “Mohamed has been through so much – so his is the theme running through the film.”

Yaaseen is from Mauritius. Born with spina bifida, he never went to primary school. The film shows him at home in a wheelchair.

“I hear the voices of children so I go to have a look at the window,” he said. “I see children getting into a school bus to go to school. Then one day I see a light. I rush towards that light – it represents my curiosity to read.”

Ijeoma came from a broken home in Nigeria and suffered an abusive childhood. Throughout those years, she believed education would help her reach her potential.



R I S E is hand-drawn. Steve said: “We did that because we wanted to tell the stories the way the kids would tell it – and they would tell it through art.

“It was a whirlwind trying to blend all their stories. This was a real collaborative effort. We had help from artists from all over the world to put this together.

“How else are you going to get it done in less than two months?”

The music used in the film is Good, Bad, Ugly is by Lecrae, an American Christian hip hop artist and producer. The lyric “I know that you don’t want to hear the truth” is particularly poignant when it comes to telling the stories of abuse and discrimination that feature in R I S E.



The film is meant to provoke and to inspire. When Yaaseen saw the finished video, he was “deeply touched and proud”.

He said: “It is like a dream come true since I always wanted my life story to reach the most number of people in the world to inspire everyone on the importance of education. The film is a good way to inspire other young people.”

Mohamed was at the #UpForSchool Town Hall and on stage with Steve when the film was shown for the first time. He told the audience: “From the age of five to nine my left hand wasn’t used to sign a petition but to squeeze the trigger of an AK47 that was taller than I was.

Town Hall Mohamed Sidibay and Steve Nguyen on stage picture by Steve Gong

“This war for educational equality is personal to me. Because I know first-hand how it feels to wake up in the morning and not be able to go to school. I know how it feels to wake up in the morning, not by the sound of an alarm clock I set, but the sound of guns and bombs dropping and reducing my memories to flames.”

Later we asked Mohamed how he felt watching the film that day. He said: “Seeing myself on that screen brought back many memories of the past. As I much I try to distance myself from my story sometimes, it’s not easy to do when you are watching yourself telling your own story on screen.

“Films like this can make a difference if done right. People need to realise how fortunate they are and I think a film like this one is one of many ways of galvanising young people into action.”





The last scenes in R I S E show our three Global Youth Ambassadors looking at the orange #UpForSchool Petition book which was handed in at the UN – and then transitioning from troubled children to successful and confident adults.

Mohamed – who escaped from his childhood hell in Sierra Leone after being granted asylum in the United States – is spending a year working as a high school English teacher in Colombia.

At the age of 12, Yaaseen started working with a teacher specialising in children with disabilities. He graduated from high school and then got a BSc in multimedia and web technologies at university. As well as being a GYA, he is also an education advocate for children with disabilities.

Ijeoma founded an educational NGO in Nigeria called Teenz Global Foundation and is a fellow in President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.



A World at School is delighted that Steve’s film is bringing the struggle for education to a new audience.

Caroline said: “It is a fresh, completely out-of-the-box campaign film that relies on powerful animation and music to tell the incredible stories of three Global Youth Ambassadors. And we’re very proud that it has resonated with so many people across the globe.”

The fight to get every child in every country into school – without fear of danger or discrimination – goes on. The #UpForSchool Petition was handed over by singing star and campaigner Shakira to Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education at last month’s UN General Assembly.

World leaders agreed to put education at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 15-year targets agreed by every member country. They include Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Please share the R I S E video and bring others to the growing global campaign to provide education for all.

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