Majier Mamer Deng. Photo by Rachel Kilroy.
It was 1987 when war drove 7-year-old Majier Mamer Deng from his home.
Like many boys of the Dinka tribe, the largest tribe in South Sudan, Deng was tending to the cattle outside his village when it was attacked.
“I hear the guns, and they told us to run,” Deng says. “Some people cry and say, ‘No, I’m not running,’ and they went back home.”
Many of those who tried to return to their villages were killed. Those who did survive became known as the “Lost Boys,” a term coined by aid workers to describe the group of 20,000 orphans — mostly boys — displaced by the Sudanese Civil War since 1983.
Although UNICEF and the Red Cross attempted to aid the group of boys, ages 6 to 17, it wasn’t until 1999 that the United States created a program allowing approximately 3,800 refugees to enter the country.
Deng, a senior at Kent State, is one of those 3,800 refugees, whom the New York Times once referred to as “the most badly war-traumatized children ever examined.”
North and South Sudan were once two separate independent nations existing side by side. North Sudan was and continues to be made up of mostly Muslims, while South Sudan was and continues to be populated by mostly Christians.
The two countries coexisted peacefully until the late 19th century, when the British colonized the two nations, combining them into one colony. During the colonization, Britain hired Egyptian mercenaries to maintain control in Sudan, arming them with weapons and training them for combat.
In the 1950s, when Britain ended its colonization of Sudan, the country was urged to restore the original border between South and North Sudan, but they did not. When the independent state was restored, the people of North Sudan received weapons and military training from their Egyptian leaders and began to seize control of South Sudan to utilize its resources.
While North Sudan began to thrive, South Sudan remained undeveloped. South Sudan had little safe water, and over 80 percent of the region had no access to education or health care, according to RebuildingSouthernSudan.org, a group whose mission is to “educate students in the newly independent country of South Sudan so they have the skills necessary to help rebuild their nation after 30 years of oppression, war and genocide.”
In 1985, North Sudan declared Sharia law, which meant everyone in Sudan, both North and South, would have to follow the Islamic religion.
When most of the Southern Sudanese people refused to become Muslim, the North Sudan government enlisted the help of gunmen from Darfur — a group that became known as the Janjaweed.
The Darfurians were told to invade Southern Sudanese villages by force, killing any men and boys in the villages. Many of the women and girls were raped and taken as slaves, while men and boys were left to run for their lives.
FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
After being driven out of Sudan, Deng spent the next three months walking barefoot to Ethiopia, where it was rumored to be safer. On the way, other refugees joined Deng’s group. The group, consisting mostly of young boys, survived by eating tree leaves and fruit. There was no water, and many died of dehydration and starvation.
“Believe it or not, some people were drinking their own urine,” Deng says.
Deng explained that because the ground was so hot, they could only travel at night. Wild animal attacks were also a threat to the group. Many people died along the way. Some just gave up because they couldn’t walk anymore.
“One person I knew, he said, ‘No, I can’t walk; I’m done; I’m going to die here,’” Deng says. “If you try to motivate them, say, ‘Keep walking,’ they say, ‘No, leave me,’ and if you say, ‘No,’ you would die there together.”
Somehow, through faith and determination, Deng survived.
SAFE FOR A WHILE
When the group reached Ethiopia, they had more resources, such as water and wood, but their hardships were not done. It was the first time the group received aid from the United Nations, but even then, they had limited resources.
“There was a lot of disease and no clean hygiene,” Deng says. “The U.N. used the shelter of big trees as clinics.”
Food was also limited, which led local tribes to attack and kill many of the Lost Boys. After nightfall, Deng and the other boys would not leave the camp out of fear of the local tribes.
“If we go to the river to get water, sometimes you never come back,” Deng says.
Ethiopia was also the first place Deng learned the alphabet. UNICEF introduced the boys to education, but there were not enough supplies. Children wrote in the dirt with a stick. Those who were given a notebook and pencil had to split the items in two and share them.
“When I wrote my ABCDs, I was so happy to hear the teacher say, ‘Yeah, you’ve done well. Excellent,’” Deng says.
After four and a half years in Ethiopia, the country experienced a change in power, and the village that had become a safe haven to the Lost Boys was soon under attack.
“They say, ‘You have three days to leave,’ but then they came up to us shooting for no reason,” Deng says. “We didn’t even say, ‘No, we didn’t want to leave.’”
The boys were driven into the Gilo River, near the border of Sudan, where they were fired upon and forced into the crocodile-filled waters. Some were shot, while others drowned or were killed by crocodiles. Deng said thousands of children died that day.
“I still have the vision, seeing people die and the crocodiles,” Deng says.
The remaining Lost Boys spent the next two months in Sudan before relocating to a refugee camp in Kenya, where Deng stayed until 2001.
COMING TO AMERICA
Although the Lost Boys were no longer in the line of fire, they still had little food, and life in Kenya was difficult.
In 1999, the U.S. government created a program for refugees to be relocated to the States. To qualify for the program, the Lost Boys had to go through an extensive interview process. Deng said many did not pass because they did not remember all the details of their journey or they were too scared to explain it properly.
“When I opened my letter that said I passed and I’m qualified to come to the United States, I was very excited,” Deng says. “I was very happy, but at the same time, I was worried about my family back home.”
While living in Kenya, Deng received his high school diploma and was able to write a letter home with help from the Red Cross. His cousin found his letter and wrote back that Deng’s family, with the exception of his father, was still alive.
Deng began contacting his mother, who was safe living in Sudan, but when he told her he was going to the U.S., she did not want him to go because he would be even farther from her.
“I’m going to America,” Deng wrote to his mother. “It is a better place, and I can do something different. But one time, I will come back to meet you, and I will keep praying that God will keep you alive.”
EDUCATION IN THE STATES
Deng came to Cleveland on May 1, 2001, with four other Lost Boy survivors. His first job was working at an art studio, a hobby he once enjoyed as a boy in Sudan.
“I still remember seeing my artwork on Cedar Road.” Deng says. “I see those stain glass on the window, and I was real happy to see my artwork there.”
The other Lost Boys were content with working, but Deng wanted to go to school.
“I learned that if you’re a well-educated person, you can live a better life,” he says. “Wherever you go, you are able to communicate with people.”
Deng spent two years at Cuyahoga Community College pursuing a physician’s assistant degree. When the school increased the program’s requirements, he transferred to Cleveland State University. There, he researched malaria until 2008, when his mother asked him to come home. While visiting his mother in Sudan, Deng was reminded of his love for airplanes and toy cars as a child.
“I need a career that will allow me to go from place to place to see other cultures and way of life.” Deng says. “Aviation may give me that opportunity to go from place to place.”
When Deng transferred to Kent State, he changed his major to aviation management and aeronautics with a minor in computer information systems.
“A lot of my friends didn’t like that because they say I spent so much time in biology and science, and I said, ‘You know, it’s OK to do something that you really love to do,’” Deng says.
When Deng came to Kent State, he joined the Kent African Student Association, a group that represents Kent State students from different countries in Africa. The group holds social gatherings to help students become acclimated to American culture. Here, they know him as Nico.
Isaac Richmond Nettey, associate dean of the College of Technology, first met Deng when he was a student in his aviation class.
“Looking at his name, I was able to deduce that he may be from South Sudan, and by talking to him after class, I got to learn some of his story,” Nettey says. “Much of our emphasis was more on how the education he is receiving can be put to use back in Sudan.”
Nettey explains that as a new nation, South Sudan has promise and potential. The country is rich with oil, gold and mercury.
“I see aviation as a tool to expedite growth and development there in a way that would translate potential into reality and translate raw resources into actual benefits for the people,” Netty says.
Once Deng graduates from the aviation program, Netty believes he will have the skills to make important contributions to the nation he still calls home.
“He understands the language and culture but also has the education,” Nettey says. “He could serve as an important bridge between the people and the developers.”
Deng says if God wants him to help South Sudan, he would love to do his part.
“South Sudan in years to come will be one of the great places to live,” Deng says. “I will bring all of my friends from here...because I want them to enjoy it, too. [The United States] has done so much for me, and I want to give it back.”blog comments powered by Disqus