Honoring South Sudan: “Lost Boy” William Deng shares his story of hope and determination
On July 9, The Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest independent nation. After enduring two civil wars which claimed millions of lives, the men and women of South Sudan voted nearly unanimously to secede from the north. As celebrations of newfound independence dwindle down, however, leaders within South Sudan and across the globe are calling attention to the numerable challenges facing this burgeoning nation. Underdevelopment and continuing conflict in the region are at the forefront of these discussions. While spectators point to imminent struggles, Sudanese refugee and former IRC client, William Deng, offers a more positive outlook on the events unfolding in his home country. Over the course of his life, William has witnessed both tragedy and triumph in southern Sudan. He recognizes that tremendous strides have already been made there and he is hopeful about the new country’s future.
At age 12, William was one of 20,000 young children to be separated from his family and forced to flee home during the Second Sudanese Civil War in the 1980s. Commonly referred to as the Lost Boys of Sudan, these children took part in an extraordinary trek across Africa in order to escape violence, death and involuntary induction into the northern army. William’s journey first brought him to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where he spent four years of his life. From Ethiopia, he journeyed back through Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya. William spent ten years in Kenya before being resettled in the United States by the IRC in 2001. He and others in the camp anxiously looked forward to the day they would arrive in “See-tell” – how Seattle was thought to be pronounced before arriving in the U.S.
Shortly after resettling in Seattle, William ambitiously started a job as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the IRC. During his two years working at the Seattle office, William gained valuable experience and took full advantage of the resources available to him. He worked with IRC volunteers to improve his English language skills, and to prepare for the General Education Development (GED) exam. Upon completion of his AmeriCorps service, William used his education award to attend Bellevue College. He then went on to earn his Masters degree at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania. William is grateful for these and all of the opportunities he enjoyed after coming to the United States: “I owe my success to the IRC – to all the help they gave me, my family, and all of Sudan. It was a gift from God being resettled here in Seattle.”
While working at the IRC, William made a special connection with one particular volunteer – a University of Washington medical student named Brianne. They met regularly for one-hour tutoring sessions, but always ended up chatting for thirty or so extra minutes afterward. Over time, William and Brianne became good friends. After Brianne graduated from UW, she asked William to join her on a trip to Sudan to deliver medicine and medical supplies to those in need. Brianne, William and a team of twelve others have since made one additional humanitarian trip to Sudan, with another planned for January 2012.
These trips have given William the chance to directly observe major changes occurring in his home country. When he returned to Sudan for the first time, William was struck by the progress that had been made since fleeing the war as a boy: “We used to not even have roads there. When I left Sudan when I was twelve, it took me six months to get to Ethiopia. Now that there are roads and cars, it would only take a matter of hours.” In addition to the improvements to infrastructure, William was inspired by the perseverance and work ethic of the people themselves. “I’ve seen the people there, and they are trying,” he says, dismissing claims that corruption and underdevelopment in the country are too big of obstacles for his people to overcome.
William recognizes that development in Sudan has been stunted by the ongoing wars over the past several years, but he views South Sudan’s secession from the north as an opportunity to jumpstart development in the region. He also views the birth of the new nation as a symbol of hope for the people: “The new country – the Republic of South Sudan – it is really a blessing. I am proud we have a country, not because we have independence, but because the war and genocide will stop and the people can finally live in peace and harmony after so many years of war.” After decades of conflict, William is grateful that the Sudanese people can finally get some relief and he is optimistic about what the future will bring.