Peter was seated in the last seat in the back of the classroom. A gentle silence resonated around him. He didn’t ask questions but I knew he was listening by his constant eye contact and contagious smile. I was often left wondering why he always appeared so happy. I strained to understand his dialect, often asking Peter to repeat his questions. As the semester progressed, so did my understanding of not only his language but the core of who Peter Deng was. It wasn’t until the students turned in their first papers at midterm that I began to learn about this extraordinary young man’s journey from South Sudan to the United States.
If you met Peter Deng by chance, he would appear to be like any other hard working college student, earning money through a full time job at Lowe’s while devoting every other second of his time to a full college course schedule. But Peter is in a class that only a designated few can claim. Peter tells his life story with a brilliant smile, and overwhelming gratitude for his life blessings today. It’s difficult to understand where his gentle nature comes from after learning about his harsh and turbulent past. Peter’s soft spoken voice silenced the classroom while he told his story of survival. The mere fact that he survived his horrific childhood is nothing short of a miracle. He begins:
“It is a dream for me to be in America. You are all so lucky. I never imagined I would be standing here talking to you like this.” The room fell silent. “I am from the Sudan. I am one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan.’ I wrote in a journal and I will read you my story.”
Wondering where I can begin without parents and friends around me. Looking confused and wondering where to go—east or west; north or south? Where can I begin here in the jungle of Africa full of aggressive, hungry wild animals and snakes? I am thirsty but nowhere to get water for drinking. The soil is hot and cracked, but I have no shoes on my feet. The desert atmosphere shimmers like a flame of fire. The blue sky seems to touch the end of the earth. I try to suck tree leaves to moisten my mouth, but they make my tongue dry. I walk overnight to avoid dehydration, but the night sky is dark and there is no light to guide my way. I fear being kidnapped by an evil hunter or our enemies who are traveling in the desert. Where can I begin with my empty stomach growling like an old engine refusing to start? I fill myself with leaves and fruit of unknown plants to fill my hungry stomach. Some plants taste sweet, sour, bitter, tasteless or nasty. Thank God almighty because I did not swallow poison.
Peter was only nine years old when he began running. He was out in the field helping with the village livestock when fire broke out. Rebels from the Muslim North Sudan attacked his village in Bor and the only way to run was away from the fire into the jungles of Africa. His country has endured decades of fighting over religious and ethnic issues. Peter’s roots are embedded in the Christian Southern Sudan whose people have endured years of attacks by the Muslim North. Peter was one of 20,000 young boys escaping with their lives and the clothing on their backs. Some were separated from their families as young as five years old. The boys who were older looked after the younger ones taking on the role of big brothers and parents. Peter and thousands of other “Lost Boys” who survived sought refuge at the border of the Sudan and Ethiopia.
Crossing the Nile River there are dangerous animals-crocodiles, hippopotamus, and turtles. Where can I begin? I do not know how to swim. I need help. Luckily the natives of that place manage to help. On the side of the river there is the last destination. I have met many lost boys of my age under the care of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) relief. Unfortunately, there is no shelter; we have to build our own houses. There is no medicine. If we are cold, there are no clothes to keep us warm. We are afraid and confused, but no security to protect us. There are no counselors or advisors to help. Not enough food. We survive with one meal a week or sometime there is nothing.
Once in Ethiopia, there wasn’t much time before the war found them again. They were on the run, but this time, they were able to cross the border of Sudan and Ethiopia into Kenya where they walked thousands of miles on bare feet. But once in Kenya, life was not comfortable. Living as a refugee was described by Peter like living on death row. People survive, but not in a healthy state. There was once again, not enough food, limited shelter, poor sanitation, poor medical care, a lack of medication and little security or education. I looked around the classroom as Peter paused. Several students had wiped tears from their eyes. Peter takes a breath and begins again:
Sometimes I ask myself what life I am in. I wake up in the morning, go to school while hungry, sit on mud benches under trees: Nature’s classroom. Wind blows away papers and tears my book, but I do not have a choice to quit because education is my weapon.
Peter knew education held the key to not only his chance for survival, but to finding a more peaceful life. While in Kenya, he completed high school requirements in 2001. Afterwards he found enough self encouragement to train as a nurse and work with an international rescue committee helping others who were victims of this unforgiving war. For the next two years, he continued looking over his shoulder, escaping more rebel attacks.
When Peter’s story came to an end, the class was silent. Time seemed to stand still for about 30 seconds. The students sat staring and speechless. I’m fairly certain lives were affected that day by his presentation. Peter’s story is also told by other Lost Boys through interviews, books and movies, but what hasn’t been told is the story after the story. Do the Lost Boys ever reunite with their families? As a parent, can you imagine your 30 year old son knocking on your door after disappearing at nine years old in midst of war?
Peter was interviewed by several U.S. agencies that determined he would be part of a select group invited to the United States. He left his homeland sad but relieved, nervous but no longer running scared. Peter left his war stricken homeland without many possessions. All Peter could think about was how blessed he was to be a survivor headed for safety but he struggled with the emotional turmoil of moving so far away from his village while also wondering if they were still alive. He was determined to one day travel back to find them. Peter arrived in the United States on April 14, 2004.
Peter’s first American experience was in Atlanta, Georgia where he worked his first job as a night processor at Cargill Meat Solution and days at a local county jail. Two years later he relocated to Plano, Texas where he enrolled at Collin County Community College. Peter earned money for his living expenses and college tuition while working full time at Lowe’s. He managed to save enough money over the years to purchase a plane ticket back to his home country. After 22 years, Peter was finally able to return home in search of his family. He was happily reunited with his Mom and extended family members. In celebration, a cow was roasted in his honor.
After a delightful reunion, Peter returned to Texas anxious to complete his Associate’s degree. He then applied and was accepted into the nursing program at the University of Texas at Arlington. Peter’s perseverance in light of the obstacles he’s faced is astounding. Peter has financed his own education while supporting himself with a full time job all while keeping his goal of becoming a nurse constant. His determination and strong faith have empowered Peter to succeed.
In January 2011, the Southern Sudan voted and was officially granted separation from the north. It was a huge victory for Peter’s homeland.
Thinking back to our most traumatic experiences brings to light the fact that although it may have been years ago, time manages to reduce the impact of these incidents. Twenty years can seem like a lifetime ago for most of us. For Peter, however, living lost in the Sudan as a young boy still seems scary, surreal and not so long ago. On the run for more than 15 years after the outbreak of the civil war, Peter overcame the worst of human experiences. His appreciation of life in the United States can be felt when he shares his feelings about living here and knowing that his dreams have already been fulfilled beyond his expectations. My hope is that all Americans who meet Peter and other Lost Boys will welcome them with a kind hand shake and open arms to our country built on the freedoms that Peter’s homeland is only beginning to embrace.
For more information on the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the war that divided Sudan visit:
BBC News: Sudan’s Lost Boys in America
George Clooney: Endgame in Sudan
Movie: God Grew Tired of Us (Trailer)