Sudanese Lost Boy's long walk comes to life

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When refugees write accounts of their lives they usually express gratitude to the nation that has received them. A Child Escapes, in which Francis Deng describes his life from childhood as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan to refugee in Kenya and now employed in a bank in Australia, is no exception. Left unsaid, but equally important, is the gift that he and other immigrants have been to Australia. In some small measure they have made their own worlds and their experiences part of Australia.

A Child Escapes by Francis DengTo realise this you need only to think of place names — the names of English towns: Tamworth and Camperdown; of Irish towns: Killarney, Tullamore and Castlemaine; of German towns: Brunswick, Hahndorf and Altona. Beyond the magic of names are the foods and customs of Christmas, Tet, Easter and Eid, and the variety of restaurants and of wines served and music played in them.

At a deeper level are the national stories now held in Australian memory: the Irish Potato Famine, and the experience of war, loss and persecution in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. These stories have become part of the Australian heritage. They have shaped distinctive representations of what it means to be a human being, to be faithful, striving, generous, prudent, courageous, successful, loving and Australian. They encourage us to reflect on the conventional wisdom and prejudices we qualify as Australian and to move beyond them.

As a young boy, Deng's world and future lay with his extended family, herding cattle in the vicinity of Bora in Sudan. When the civil war began, soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) took him with thousands of other eight or nine year old boys. They marched the boys through hostile territory into Ethiopia. There he suffered hunger, receiving a little education and basic training in military discipline in preparation for serving with the SPLA. His hunger for education led him to join a Catholic Church group run by a dedicated priest.

After the revolution in Ethiopia its army turned against the SPLA and expelled their camps from the country. In the fighting the boys fled again in fear of their lives, witnessed massacres, and lived under constant threat on return to Sudan. Eventually Francis was among those repatriated by the United Nations into Kenya.

His passion for education led him to Kakuma Camp, where he won a scholarship to secondary school, and after many years opened the path to come to Australia as a refugee. He worked in various jobs, won a university place to study accounting, spent some time in the Army Reserve, and more recently has found employment with National Australia Bank through the African Inclusion Program jointly sponsored by Jesuit Social Services and NAB.

That is the outer story, which with those of other Sudanese refugees has become part of the Australian heritage. The deeper gift, however, lies in the inner story: the imagining of a life that could have been our own. Deng's walk comes to life when we see through his eyes and feel through his feet the razor sharp grass in which snakes abounded and lions hunted, and enter the implacable sun, and the constant hunger, and the alien dress of strangers encountered along the way. His words convey a world alien and yet imaginable.

 

"Joining the Australian Army Reserve allowed him to test his negative experience both of armies and of Australian institutions."

 

'Savannah grass swished like mice caught in a trap, as if it was enjoying our pain,' he writes. 'Blisters tormented my feet. The car-tyre shoes pulled my legs backward. This wilderness did not understand innocence ... The smell of water. People converged on the distant trees. While fear of the Muerle and Arabs from the sky seemed to have vanished, death was thick in the glimmering heat.'

Running through the book is Deng's hunger for knowledge. As a boy he desired a formal education, but more deeply he hungered for wisdom: to understand what it means and demands to be human. Throughout his journey he is reflective, anxious to learn and to live by what he learns. He comes to judge what is right and wrong by reflecting on his own behaviour and that of his companions and the soldiers.

As he grew he moved from identifying himself uncritically with the SPLA and its slogans to be critical of some of its practices. He acted out his own judgments at some cost. For example, he protested to the leadership group responsible for distributing food that they ate well themselves while leaving the weaker boys to starve. He was predictably humiliated and beaten.

Initially approving the savage SPLA reprisals against local villagers for their attacks on the boys, he later disapproved when the boys were forced to watch the public execution of soldiers for rape. He developed a strong moral compass that gave him energy to pursue intimidating new possibilities: the possibility of a scholarship, the possibility of finding settlement in the United States and later Australia, university enrolment, and finding his way to and through the African Inclusion Program.

Perhaps the most striking instance of the impulse to learn through new experience was his decision to join the Army Reserve in Australia. One might have thought his experience with the SPLA would be enough for a lifetime. But apart from providing him with some income, the move allowed him to test the good and bad qualities of Australian society. When working earlier in a Sydney factory he had suffered from bullying and verbal abuse from his fellow workers. It angered him and made him want to understand what it meant:

Jackson, an Islander, became my friend. I asked him what all those words they called me meant.

'Bludger means lazy slow worker. Poofter means a homosexual man and dickhead means stupid. You were angry for nothing, these words mean nothing'

'But why did you call me by them if they mean nothing?'

'It was just joking with you; this is what this place is all about mate.'

'That's an unreasonable way of joking with people.'

'Get over it mate, there is nothing unreasonable here.'

Joining the Australian Army Reserve offered him the opportunity to see if his treatment there was indeed what Australia 'is all about mate'. It allowed him to test his negative experience both of armies and of Australian institutions. He explains:

As a child soldier growing up under the SPLA, I was made to believe that soldiers were not equal to ordinary people. Soldiers abused civilians, robbed them of their livelihood beat them like criminals without a crime being committed ...

When we lost boys of Sudan were in Pinyudu camp, we all wanted to be given guns and sent to the frontline to fight the enemy. This would make us all soldiers and no one would intimidate us. I had thought SPLA soldiers were harsh because that was the nature of people carrying arms. My experience as an Australian Army reservist showed me quite the opposite — that professionalism and integrity were key to being an effective soldier.

The testing confirmed that in Australia he could find a better way and that his desire to build a society based on respect and not on brutality was widely shared, no matter how imperfectly it was embodied.

 

"The journey by which he came to it is a gift to Australia. It stands in judgment on tribal rivalries and gang violence. It also stands in judgment of the way in which some Australian politicians and sections of the media have vilified Sudanese Australians."

 

Another large theme of the book is Deng's experience of tribalism and his rejection of it in favour of a rich and varied humanity. His journey took him from the close-knit family and tribal adherence that had defined his childhood and the horizon of his future. This was interrupted by civil war and his journey into Ethiopia, where he encountered hostility between tribes but accepted his place in the SPLA universe.

He later saw the way in which the Sudanese government had exploited tribal differences in order to create divisions within South Sudan, leading to massacre and devastation in his home region. The same tribal divisions were further exploited by ambitious people among the South Sudanese rulers. He experienced further discrimination on the grounds of origin when living in Kakuma Camp and when travelling in Kenya, and again after arriving in Australia both within the immigrant Sudanese and among Australian-born people.

Through these experiences he came to reject tribalism and to adopt a commitment to a world in which there is no discrimination on the basis of tribe, race or religion. This is encapsulated in the philosophy of Ubuntu, summed up in the aphorism, 'I am because you are, and you are because I am.' The journey by which he came to it is a gift to Australia. It stands in judgment on tribal rivalries and gang violence. It also stands in judgment of the way in which some Australian politicians and sections of the media have vilified Sudanese Australians.

His journey proposes ideal qualities to which all Australians should aspire: courage, the desire to know and to follow what is important, the readiness to enter and be at home in strange environments, and to treat others as equals and as potential friends regardless of differences of religion, skin colour, experience and place of origin. The challenge Deng's story offers to readers as fellow human beings is to see possibility in people we dismiss as irremediable, and to seek understanding by entering situations that arouse fear.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers, Francis Deng, Sudan, Kenya

 

 

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Existing comments

It is in no small measure that immigrants have fashioned this country of ours. Many have arrived here after great trauma. Part of that trauma is leaving their place of birth to start anew. Francis Deng has written his story and it's a story of courage. His hunger to rise above his perilous circumstances and contribute to his new place can teach his fellow Australians, those born here and newcomers, what we can be. I'll be finding a copy of this book.
Pam | 01 May 2019


Another insightful article Fr Andrew, woven with the tapestry of Francis Deng's experiences and fears and a testament to his ambition. My sister was an Anglican missionary in Cairo for 3 years teaching the Sudanese who had escaped the persecution there. She still helps, educates and supports many of them in Melbourne. It is a pity that both the Liberal candidates and Anning can only condemn the Sudanese youth violence and theft in Melbourne without offering any positive alternatives to alleviate their rejection by our white middle class majority. Why couldn't the armed forces have a Sudanese regiment (like the Gurkhas), or the Government start a State run fishing fleet? (for example). Why couldn't the AIS offer their youth sports scholarships in Athletics, tennis, cycling and swimming? Victimizing and labeling Sudanese youth as criminal subversive elements wont lead to ultimate integration. We were all migrants at one stage or another of British Colonization of this "lucky" country.
Francis Armstrong | 01 May 2019


Thank you Andy, for sharing this, another story of a person whose courage and wisdom stand firm to encourage us to look for great possibilities in people we so often dismiss. We owe them our care and support. We have much to learn from them.
Anne Doyle | 04 May 2019


Hi Fr Andy, what a great article, you have captured the essence of Francis message. We have already sold a book on the back of your writing. So Thank you. Kind regards John Hopkins.
John Hopkins | 07 May 2019


I would love to read this book. Are you able to provide some publishing details, please? (It is self-published: https://achildescapes.com.au ) Eds.
Kate Lawry | 16 May 2019


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