PERU — Gabriel Bol Deng believes his suffering has shaped him into the man he has become.
His journey from Africa to the United States and back again was not an easy one.
Deng is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
When he was a child, his parents told him his attitude, whether good or bad, would control his life.
“My life was really good before the civil war,” he told the more than 60 people gathered in the auditorium of Peru Central High School recently.
Although he lived in a small hut with no running water or electricity, he was happy with his mother, father and eight siblings.
“What my mom used to say is that you don’t need a lot of material wealth to be happy, that you are happy if you are blessed with a family ... a family that cares for you.”
But his village was attacked by North Sudan militiamen in 1987.
At the time of the raid, 10-year-old Deng was in a field, tending his family’s cows.
Four militiamen with guns appeared “out of nowhere,” he said.
“The first thing I did was to duck down and cover myself with the (high) grass.”
Once the men were gone, Deng ran back to his village.
“I saw a huge swarm of fire,” he said. “A lot of people were slaughtered. They were throwing them into abandoned houses.
“I had to run without knowing what happened to my family.”
Before long, a man found Deng and hoisted him up onto his shoulders, and the two traveled together for a few minutes until the man was shot in the back.
“I played dead. I crossed my eyes and held my breath, pretending I was a dead child.”
‘DETERMINED TO SURVIVE’
When it was safe to move, Deng ran into the forest and, the next day, found a group of people who were also made homeless by the violence.
For two months, Deng traveled with them through the wilderness, where food and water were scarce.
Eventually, they reached the Nile River.
Deng was on the verge of giving up, but he remembered his parents’ teachings of perseverance and courage.
“I always wanted my parents to be proud of me, so I said ... ‘You’re going to survive this.’”
Deng made it across the Nile but not without seeing the death of many of the other children, who were swept away by the current or taken by crocodiles.
“At that time, I was consumed by hopelessness,” he said. “One night, I went to bed thinking I was going to die.”
Again, he recalled his parents’ wisdom and found the strength to continue.
Deng ran another two months through the desert until he reached a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he began school.
He was forced to flee again four years later when conflict threatened his safety.
This time, he sought refuge in Kenya, where he continued his education.
Then, in 2001, Deng came to Syracuse through a U.S. refugee resettlement program. It was there, he said, he began his quest for the American dream.
He held a full-time job while a full-time student at Le Moyne College, where he was named Student Teacher of the Year.
After graduation, he was offered a position as a middle-school teacher.
He turned it down.
“There was something in me missing,” Deng said.
So in 2007, he returned to Ariang, where he began raising funds to build a school.
“We started from zero.”
The building was constructed from the ground up, from the bricks that compose its walls to the classroom desks inside.
The school, finished in 2011, has changed the community, Deng said, giving hope to those who live there.
“Education is power,” he said.
Deng returned to America to continue to raise awareness of the conditions in his homeland, as well as funds to continue to improve the school.
“My worth as a human being is measured by how my attitude affects others positively,” he said. “My hope is that kids can see how lucky they are to be in this country.”
Email Felicia Krieg: email@example.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg
HOW TO HELP
To learn more or to donate to HOPE for Ariang, go to hopeforariang.org.