Abraham Deng lived a “glorious life” in the village of Duk in Sudan, until military forces attacked, driving him and thousands of other children to flee into the jungle.
More than 20 years later, Deng still has not returned to Duk.
Deng shared his story of loss and triumph Tuesday with seventh-grade students at North Hall Middle School.
“I like to share my story with kids especially,” Deng said. “They need to be informed. Sometimes the things they see on TV don’t make sense to them. The movies people make with the music in the background — the real world, especially the battlefield, doesn’t have music in the background.”
Deng was born in 1981 in what is now South Sudan. Before his fifth birthday, he was given the responsibility, as first-born in his family, of tending cattle with other boys in his village.
“I was living a good life with my siblings and friends,” he said. “... I had the responsibility to take care of the cows by the time I was 4 years old. Education began early on and we learned from other kids and our parents as well.”
When Deng was 6, he was herding outside the village when he heard gunshots. He and several other cowherders began to run toward the village when they came across other children running away.
“My dad, mom and siblings were in the village with the rest of my relatives,” he said. “We heard gunshots and tried to come back, but were told not to go because they would kill us.”
Instead, the thousands of children who’d been tending livestock headed toward the jungle. The majority of these young workers were boys, and they eventually became known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Deng said they lived mostly on roots, leaves and grass. He had no shoes and only a pair of shorts for clothing, but he said the hardest part was leaving his family.
The lost children traveled in groups for three months, barefoot, before reaching the Panyidu refugee camp in Ethiopia.
“We took care of each other and education became primary here,” said Deng, who is now a public health/epidemiology student at South University in Savannah. “We would learn under the trees and practice writing in the dirt.”
In 1991, four years after arriving in Panyidu, the Sudanese refugees were forced back to Sudan at gunpoint. They reached the River Gilo, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, where the largest number of children lost their lives. “Enemies were shooting at us into the water,” he said. “Some of the kids who couldn’t swim tried to crawl to the other side, but they kept shooting at us into the water. I was not able to cross because I was not able to swim.”
Deng said one of his friends was older than him and could swim. He told Deng to hold onto him and kick his legs while they crossed the river, which was more than 200 yards wide.
“I thought about the case of Daniel in the Bible,” Deng said. “He went into the lions’ den, but he was not killed by the lions. Shadrach, Abednego and Meshach went into the fire, but they were not burned by the fire.”
Many of Deng’s friends, including his cousin, did not survive the trek through Africa. Exhaustion, starvation, snakebites, scorpion stings and attacks from lions, hyenas and crocodiles took many of the lost children.
Finally, after walking for six months, Deng made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived and continued to learn.
“I had an education, but I had only one meal a day (in Kenya),” Deng said. “It wasn’t sufficient; the education wasn’t sufficient.”
After nine years in Kenya, Deng and approximately 4,000 other refugees were resettled in the U.S. by the United Nations.
“I never thought I would live in the United States,” he said. “It was something I read about in a book — a wonderful country.”
While still in Africa, he learned his father and five uncles had been killed by Sudanese militants. Nineteen years after leaving Duk, he was reunited with his mother and younger siblings in Ethiopia.
Deng earned his undergraduate degree at Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina, a master’s degree from Mercer University and is now working on his doctoral degree.
He told the North Hall students he hopes to use his doctorate to help people in his home country.
“I want to let kids know this is what I went through when as a little boy with no parents to take care of me, but I remained faithful and encouraged,” he said. “I want to let them know they can still make a difference in someone’s life, especially here in America with so many opportunities.”