Gabriel Bol Deng had a good life.
Until he was 9 or 10 years old, he lived with his parents and eight siblings in the village of Ariang, near the town of Gogrial in the Bhar el Ghazal region of Southern Sudan.
“We were poor, but we were happy,” Deng said. “I was happy. I had somebody that cared for me.”
That happiness ended in 1987 when Ariang was attacked by Arab militiamen, agents of the government in Khartoum in the northern part of Sudan. The soldiers ravaged the village, just as they had countless others, as part of a conquest for oil and power.
While it might sound like a tale of woe, Deng’s story is far from hopeless. That’s the message he gave to about 300 ninth-graders at the Liverpool High School Annex on Wednesday Nov. 28. Deng was invited to speak by the school’s Global Exchange Club, an organization comprised of exchange students, ESL students and traditional students that looks at global issues. Maureen Tricase is the group’s advisor.
“We want to make sure our students know what’s going on in the world,” Tricase said. “Gabriel has such a great message of hope — that you can overcome any obstacle and you can persevere. He is the epitome of that message, for sure.”
Deng said he speaks at schools for two reasons.
“First is because of the problem of Sudan,” he said. “We need to educate people about the ongoing crisis. Second, we’re all human beings. We need to learn from one another. I want people — especially children — to think beyond their own world, their own horizons, and become global citizens.”
Deng also wants students to recognize how fortunate they are to have access to a quality education.
“I want you to see how lucky you are to be in this country and in this school,” he told the audience. “In Sudan, we do not have opportunities like this, opportunities for an education and opportunities in life.”
The life he fled
Indeed, in war-torn southern Sudan, education was hardly a priority, and those who did have access to it misused it.
“Politicians in Sudan used their education in a bad way,” Deng said. “They used it to inflict suffering on children.”
Sudan, located in the northeastern portion of the continent, is the largest country in Africa. It’s also home to the “worst political situation,” Deng said. Between 1983 and 2003, an estimated 2.2 million people were killed during a long and vicious civil war, fought between the National Islamic Front, the army of the Khartoum government, and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Front, the army of the Southern rebels. The government, located in northern Sudan, pillaged the towns and villages of the south for oil.
“There are three things that they’re fighting for in Sudan,” Deng said. “First is oil — the government wants it, the villages have it, so the government bombs the villages to get it. Next is a lack of equality: 70 percent of the population is of African origin and 30 percent of the population is of Middle Eastern origin. That 30 percent controls the country, and they use their religion to oppress people. Then there’s the hunger for power. The leaders don’t want to step down. They want to be president forever.”
For much of Deng’s young life, the war was a distant reality. That changed in January of 1987. Deng was in the grazing field tending to his family’s cows when he heard gunshots. He hid in the grass and spied four Arab militiamen with rifles storming into his village. Once he saw that it was safe, Deng emerged and ran towards the village to warn his family, but he was too late; he arrived to find the village on fire, bodies all around. Still, he tried to press on, desperate to find his parents and siblings, but was stopped by two men from the village.
“They tried to grab me and keep me safe,” Deng said. “They saved my life.”
One of the men was gunned down. Deng fled to the forest and hid in a tree for two days, only daring to climb down when he heard people from his village below him sharing their survival stories. Together, he and his fellow villagers — most of them children — fled on foot. For months, Deng and the other survivors walked, seeking refuge. Many did not survive the trip. Deng grew weak and ill, but still he persevered.
“God was watching over me,” he said. “I didn’t lose hope.”
After four months of walking, Deng arrived at the Dimma Refugee Camp in Ethiopia. The camp was his home from 1987 to 1991. It was there that, at the age of 13 in 1990, he began attending school.
But “Africa is a continent of political upheaval,” Deng said. “The Ethiopian government was overthrown and all of the refugees were expelled. We couldn’t go back to Sudan, so we started walking.”
Once again, Deng and the other survivors trekked across the desert, this time dodging bombs and gunfire from a government determined to wipe them out. Eventually they made it to the Kahuma camp in Kenya. There Deng spent the next nine years of his life — and pursued his education.
“I couldn’t give up hope of going to school,” he said. “There weren’t enough trained teachers and we had no chalkboards or books, but I didn’t take it for granted.”
Deng recognized the importance of education, realizing that it would be his ticket to a better life. Education is of critical importance to the orphans of war — more than 500,000 children lost one or both parents during the fighting — who refer to education as their mother and father.
In 2000, the United States, recognizing the need among Sudanese orphans for a stable home, began bringing the so-called “Lost Boys” to America. Deng was among 3,800 Sudanese young men to settle in the U.S., landing in New York City on Feb. 14, 2001.
A bittersweet homecoming
Deng settled in Syracuse and almost immediately resumed his education. In May of 2007, he graduated from LeMoyne College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education. He is now pursuing his master’s degree.
Days after his college graduation, Deng returned home to Ariang after 20 years. Since his departure, a shaky peace has come to Sudan; the U.S. and Kenya brokered a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2003 that forced both sides to acknowledge that there could be no victory and called for a cease-fire. The treaty is certainly flawed — it makes no reference to the western Darfur region, now ravaged by war and genocide, and provisions for equal distribution of wealth between the north and south have gone unenforced — but now, Deng said, “the villagers aren’t running anymore.”
This past summer, Deng spent several weeks in Sudan. The trip was rife with highs — he was greeted at the village’s borders by 600 people, jubilant to find him alive, having thought him dead all these years; he saw his brother Ngor for the first time in two decades and met his extended family. But there were lows as well — Deng learned that his passed away during the war, and only about a third of his childhood friends had survived.
A school for Ariang
Most of all, Deng’s homecoming was a learning experience. He saw the devastation war had wrought on Ariang, and he wanted to find a way to alleviate the suffering of his people.
“I thought, ‘What do I want to do for my village?'” Deng said. “I knew I wanted to build a primary school. The children of my village are the future leaders of Sudan, and we need to educate them. I want to help my country, and the best way to help is education.”
When he returned to the U.S., Deng began working to raise money to build a school in his village. Last month, he set up Helping Offer Primary Education (HOPE) for Sudan, a nonprofit organization that will collect donations to build the school. At each speaking engagement, Deng sells T-shirts and bracelets to raise money. His fundraising goal is $150,000, which he hopes to have by next summer. Once he has that money, Deng will return to Sudan to begin making bricks and drilling wells for the school.
The need for education in Sudan is staggering. The nation has the second lowest access to primary education in the world (Afghanistan is first). There are only 20 active secondary schools in the south, and southern universities, which relocated to the north during the war, still have not returned. Ninety-nine percent of women in the country are illiterate; only 10 percent of girls ages 7 to 14 have ever attended school. Most teachers have not completed primary education themselves, curricula are not standardized and language barriers prevent learning.
In Ariang, there is no school; secondary students must travel six hours on foot every day to a school in a nearby village. Poor infrastructure and a lack of roads mean the villagers don’t have access to basic medical supplies, and children die regularly from malnutrition and preventable diseases.
“They need this school,” Deng said. “They need the opportunity for a better life. I hope to raise enough money to build one school so that some people may find the same hope for the future through education that I found here.”
To donate or to learn more about HOPE for Sudan, visit hopeforariang.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.