HAVERTOWN, Pennsylvania — They fled their villages amid chaos and gunfire. For months, the so-called “Lost Boys” walked barefoot across Sudan, fighting dehydration and exhaustion on their journey to safety.
One Lost Boy of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng, made this harrowing journey when he was just 9-years-old. Now, decades later, he has been appointed Minister of Education in Northern Bahr el-Ghaza, one of South Sudan’s 10 states.
The 1980s saw the outbreak of Sudan’s brutal second civil war. The clash between the north’s Arab rulers and the south’s largely Christian and animist population caused an estimated 20,000 boys aged 5 to 11 to flee their villages.
Separated from their families when northern fighters raided their villages, many boys ran for their lives. They traveled almost a thousand miles, avoiding slave traders, wild animals and enemy soldiers. Half of the boys died on the journey.
The survivors became known around the world as the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, a generation of children that endured one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century.
Deng says he “ran away with the rest” when the militias came to his village of Marial Bai in present-day South Sudan.”They bombed Marial Bai, destroyed it, killed everything, burned crops and livestock,” he explains.
After months of marching across Sudan, Deng finally reached safety at refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He stayed in the camps for nine years as he received an education and worked as a social advocate and reproductive health educator for the UNHCR. In 2001, he resettled in the United States.
Nearly four thousand Lost Boys were brought to the United States as part of the State Department’s resettlement program. Sent to cities across the country, they faced a new challenge: adapting to a foreign land’s way of life, America’s way of life.
With the support of American sponsors and volunteers, Deng excelled in the United States. He resettled in Atlanta and eventually attended college. He gave speaking tours and turned his life story into a bestselling book, What is the What, by author David Eggers.
Then, in 2006, Deng returned to his home village. Using the proceeds from What is the What and the funds from his own private foundation, he established a high school in Marial Bai.
515 students currently attend The Marial Bai Secondary School, which offers boarding and meals in addition to academic and extracurricular programs. The school has the highest ranking of all free secondary schools in the country.
In July 2011, the people of the war-torn region voted through a referendum to split from the north and form the Republic of South Sudan, the world’s 195th country. Today, South Sudan faces new challenges that mirror those of Deng’s youth. Violence and poverty plague the young nation, while a complex history of ethnic rivalries have led to civil unrest in many parts of the country.
Although little of the fighting has so far affected Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, the civil war has still taken a toll on the region. Economic instability has forced many students to drop out of school to support their families, while many teachers, Deng says, cannot survive on their meager salaries.
“Education is transformation, but it can only do so much if people are forced to leave school,” Deng says.
Deng was named Minister for Education earlier this year. With his new position, he oversees more than 800 schools.
Back at The Marial Bai Secondary School, Deng is focused on incorporating some of the lessons he learned as a Lost Boy into school life. The school accepts children from different states and ethnic backgrounds, which he hopes will promote an environment of cross-cultural unity.
Deng says, “You know someone speaks another language but they’re South Sudanese, someone lives a different lifestyle but they’re South Sudanese, someone comes from a different location, but he’s just as important as you at Marial Bai Secondary School.”
– Caitlin Harrison
Sources: BBC, NPR, New York Times, CBS News, International Rescue Committee, VAD Foundation