November 18, 2010
Sudan refugee recounts struggles
Talk at TC3 tells story of savage civil war, long journey back home to rebuild
DRYDEN — Gabriel Bol Deng was 10 years old and tending his Dinka family’s cattle when militiamen from the northern part of Sudan raided his village and began slaughtering people.
It was 1990 and North Sudan, which is Muslim, had begun attacking the Christian South. This was the second civil war in the African nation, lasting from 1983 until 2005, and it would lead to 27,000 boys and young men being separated from their families for years as they took refuge — the Lost Boys of Sudan, as they came to be known around the world.
“I would have died if those militia had seen me,” Bol Deng told an overflow crowd of about 300 people Wednesday at Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Student Center.
His talk was part of International Education Week at the college.
Now a graduate student in math education at Le Moyne College, Bol Deng divides his time between Syracuse — where he has lived since 2001 — and his native village of Ariang, where he is leading an effort to construct a school building.
“Education is the difference,” he said. “You do not give up and you work hard — the American dream, yes? But that dream is in jeopardy. The United States ranks 12th among developed countries now. You are not producing any (astronaut) Neil Armstrongs. Students are not graduating on time and they are not taking education seriously.”
Bol Deng, 31, said he decided knowledge is the key for his people. The school, a building which would provide a roof for students now learning under trees in his village, would be a gift to his parents, who died in the attack.
Bol Deng showed a film about himself and two other Lost Boys, who found adoptive families in the U.S., grew into their 20s and then returned in 2007 to their villages to look for their families.
The day Ariang was attacked, Bol Deng hid in a forest and stayed in a tree that night, surrounded by lions and hyenas. The next day he joined a group fleeing across desert to Ethiopia, which took months and left them starving. He stayed one year in a refugee camp there, then crossed into Kenya and lived in a refugee camp for nine years.
The United States allowed Catholic Charities, the Episcopal Church and other charitable organizations to bring 3,800 of the Lost Boys to this country. Bol Deng ended up in Syracuse, where he decided an education was the difference for anyone who wanted to accomplish anything.
He earned an associate’s degree at Onondaga Community College and a bachelor’s degree in math education at Le Moyne College, then taught math in Syracuse schools.
Bol Deng laughed as he recalled that he thought snow was sugar on the ground, and that he needed three tries to pass his road test so he could drive.
“My parents taught me that when you fail, do not blame other people, find the answer by asking the right people and making good decisions,” he said. “I decided I would not watch ‘Hannah Montana’ or ‘American Idol’ until I passed. That was my sacrifice.”
He loved his adoptive family in Syracuse but noticed parents cheering for their children at Le Moyne’s graduation. He had no idea if his family was still alive.
The Bush Administration helped to create a peace agreement in Sudan in 2005. Two years later, Bol Deng and his two friends, who had settled in Tucson and Chicago, flew to Kenya and then into Sudan, bringing medical supplies and mosquito tents to keep disease-carrying mosquitoes off people at night. Their stories were documented for the film “Rebuilding Hope” by Jen Marlowe, which Bol Deng showed to the crowd.
The three struggled to charter an airplane large enough to carry 2,000 pounds of medicines. Bol Deng lost his passport and a money belt with $3,000. Then they faced challenges trying to help their villages with medical problems.
The other two men found their parents alive. Bol Deng located an uncle, who would not tell him anything about his parents, and realized they were dead.
He said peace in Sudan is fragile, as people do not know their South Sudan government and tensions with the North continue, although he thinks those tensions are more about power than religion.
Bol Deng sells T-shirts and symbolic bricks for the school through his nonprofit, HOPE for Ariang, www.HopeForAriang.org. The acronym stands for Helping Offer Primary Education.
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