Photo taken by Laura Friend
Imagine being torn from your home, and never being able to go back. Imagine your entire childhood, all you’ve ever known, burning down to ashes. Imagine walking hundreds of miles, with nothing but exhaustion and hope, to reach safety that cannot be provided for all. Whatever you are imagining right now is plain trickery, because it doesn’t come close to what much of the world has seen. You can’t feel the same, or at least, not as much as citizens of Sudan.
A Sudanese civil war had begun in 1983, between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government. This war had taken over 500,000 lives, and drove out even more from their homes. These petrified misfits have fled all over to escape the terror that killed their families, left their villages and towns in ruins, and engraved gruesome scenes into their minds that burned brighter than ever.
People trekked incomprehensive distances in search of refuge, peace, and a new start. The ones who could, hiked a thousand miles in hopes of reaching the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya but, with the struggle of hunger, disease and overall weakness, only half of them made it. Twenty thousand of all these refugees were young boys, between the age of 7 and 17. The ones who got out are known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
As these people spread in search of safety, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) worked to bring these people to safety outside of Africa. As desperate times called for desperate measures, many families were separated, with some retreating with the UNHCR and the others remaining in their country. Unfortunately, with the war raging on, the people they brought to safety wouldn’t be able to reunite with any survivors in their home country or the country itself. The organization still works to this day to get these people to safety, and worked to create a new life for each and every refugee that is rescued. The organization managed to get 3,600 people to resettle in the United States; other survivors still remain in camps in Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan.
One Lost Boy they rescued now works as a custodian at Luther Burbank Middle School. John Deng grew up in a village in South Sudan. When he was eight, the Sudanese army came and bombed his village. Many were killed, including John’s parents, and he was forced to run away with his little brother. The hike they had to take got the best of many of the Lost Boys, and played a significant part in the number of deaths due to this conflict. From illness, exhaustion, and hunger, many died along the way and, if they reached the refugee camp in Kenya, many had to be treated as well. “It took five years to come to America,” says Deng, recalling his harsh travels.
When the UNHCR rescued him and his brother, they parted ways and finally arrived in America in 2001. The following years were spent learning and adjusting to (the very different) everyday American life. The very first thing he did upon his arrival was go to the supermarket, which at first, he describes as an adventure on its own. “I go to the supermarket,” says Deng, “but I don’t know what to buy, and I have someone go with me to show me what to buy.” The difference between the one kind of milk they have in African stores and the hundreds of milk brands in America is almost exponential. He also describes how he had to learn how to use an oven; however, he already knew how to drive a car, unlike many of the Lost Boys. Being lost in this new environment is not uncommon to the Lost Boys. They also have to learn how to use ovens, vacuum cleaners, cars – even being introduced to winter weather.
Deng originally had dreams for himself, planning to go to school and get a degree, but things changed when he got married and had three children. Today, he works as a custodian at Luther Burbank to provide for his family. He hasn’t physically met with his brother since 1995, who now has a wife and kids. However, they remain in touch through technology and the internet, and with their strong gratitude and bold faith, they both keep their dreams of peace in high hopes.
When asked about his views on the war dragging on in Sudan and the attacks happening around America, Deng nods in a grave manner. He describes America as not at all of what he expected, and explains how he learned something new: “By the time I came from Africa, I thought I came where people lived in peace… but everywhere there are bad people who do bad things… and you fear for your life.” Nevertheless, he still makes the best of what he has. “I’m here, I’m safe, I’m okay – I can’t say I’m good now, but I’m better… and I will do everything I can to help out.”