Posted on 04 September 2015.
Deng Jongkuch, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, stands in the middle of a group of school children in his former village in Sudan. He helped raise money to build a school and give the children uniforms. Photo courtesy of Impactavillage.org.
Deng Jongkuch with Cedar Springs resident Tim Bauer, who visited Deng’s village and others last year while on a medical mission trip to Sudan.
by Judy Reed
The Cedar Springs Public Schools staff came together Tuesday, September 1, for their opening day of the school year with heavy hearts, as they grieved the deaths of two of their high school students this summer, and the parent in another family. But many left the gathering with a new determination and inspiration to speak into the lives of their students, and give them a fighting chance to succeed, after hearing the story of guest speaker, Deng Jongkuch, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan.
Deng was just five years old when civil war came to his village, in 1988. “My village and nearby villages were attacked by Arab militants,” he explained. “A lot of people were killed, tortured, raped and mutilated. People ran in all different directions and got separated from their families. That’s how I became lost.”
Deng escaped with several other young boys in the middle of the night. They joined a group of 26,000 people to walk to Ethiopia. “I walked for 30 days with my cousins,” he said. “We encountered wild animals, such as lions. Some lost their lives.”
He stayed in the refugee camp in Ethiopia until 1991. Deng said the people there were beyond our definition of poor; many were naked, others had no shoes. They were rationed one meal a day of corn and beans.
In 1991, the refugee camp was attacked, and Deng fled with others back to Sudan. Many died trying to cross the river. “They were eaten by crocodiles or drowned,” he said. The war was still raging in Sudan, so they walked to Kenya. Many more died of starvation, disease, and wild animal attacks. It took about a year to walk to Kenya. “Those that survived drank their own urine,” he remarked.
Deng lived at the refugee camp in Kenya from 1992 to 2001. It held about 150,000 people. But only 16,000 of the original 30,000 had survived. He said the camp was overcrowded with refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and the Congo. “We only had one book for every 10 students for school,” explained Deng. “We would see the book once every 10 days, so had to study it well.”
Finally, after seven interviews and a lengthy screening process, Deng was one of 3,800 “lost boys” chosen to come to the United States. He arrived in California with 60 other boys, at the age of 18. He had a lot to learn about American culture, and how to speak English, but he persisted. He worked nights and went to school during the day, eventually graduating with a Masters degree in Public Health in 2011.
In 2005 a peace treaty was signed, and in 2006 Deng returned to his village in Sudan. “My mom was cooking, and she shined a light in my face and asked if I was her son. I told her I was, and she asked me what my nickname was. I told her, then she knew it was me,” he said. Happy as he was to see his mother and father and some of his siblings, he was saddened that his grandmother had died just the day before he arrived.
Deng was also saddened to walk around the village and see the way the children were learning. They were sitting in the dirt with books because there was no school house, no chairs. “I returned with a heavy heart, wondering how I could help,” he explained.
Deng went on to help raise $30,000 for a new school building and uniforms for the children. “There were 470 kids in the school, and I noticed there were a lot more boys than girls. That’s because the girls had to stay home to help grind the corn by hand. I knew they needed to be integrated into the school; they are the backbone of the family. So I bought a grinder so that the girls could attend school,” he said.
Deng said he returns to his homeland about once a year, but his family hasn’t expressed any desire to come to America. He has written about his experiences in his book, “The Story of Hope: The Journey of Lost Boy of Sudan.”
Currently, Deng, is development director at Partners in Compassionate Care (PCC), in Grand Rapids. Dave Bowman, founder and chairman of PCC, also spoke at the school staff meeting and related how he took in five Lost Boys from Sudan.