'Lost Boys of Sudan' Finally Find a Home Three of the "lost boys of Sudan" write about their harrowing experiences fleeing Sudan for a new life in the United States in They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.
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'Lost Boys of Sudan' Finally Find a Home

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'Lost Boys of Sudan' Finally Find a Home

'Lost Boys of Sudan' Finally Find a Home

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In January of this year, the Sudanese government and the rebel army of the south signed an historic peace treating bringing an end to a long, brutal civil war. For more than 20 years, the government, dominated by Arabs and Muslims, fought the largely Christian and animist black tribes in southern Sudan. An estimated million and a half people died in the conflict; as many as five million fled their homes. In many villages, government troops killed the men, carried the women and girls off into slavery and left small boys to fend for themselves. These orphan boys had little choice but to begin a thousand-mile walk to the relative safety of refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Many died along the way of hunger, thirst, illness and from attacks by wild animals. And the war pursued them, as well. The 20,000 or so who survived became known as the lost boys of Sudan. Many, now grown men, still live in the refugee camps.

In late 2000, Alephonsion Deng was among a group of almost 4,000 lost boys relocated to the United States. Alepho, as he's known, wrote a book with his brother and his cousin called "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan."

Later in the program, a look back at lynching. The US Senate is expected to approve a measure today to apologize for its failure to pass a lynching law. But first, the lost boys of Sudan. If you have questions about the experiences of the lost boys in Africa or after they've arrived here, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Alepho Deng joins us from our member station, KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ALEPHONSION DENG (Co-author, "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Also with us is Judy Bernstein. She's been a mentor to Alepho and his friends in San Diego, co-authored the book with him. She also joins us from KPCC in Pasadena.

Nice to have you on the program, as well.

Ms. JUDY BERNSTEIN (Co-author, "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And, Alepho, I think we have to begin with good news. I understand you recently discovered that your mother is still alive.

Mr. DENG: Yes, I did.

CONAN: How did you find out?

Mr. DENG: This is a very exciting ending, you know. Like they say, a story has a ending. It started with a tragic, and then also ended good. Though it was through a friend that--we were together in the whole walk and they survive and they--all the horrors of the war. And then--he was a little bit older than me...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DENG: ...so he had to leave to go to the military rebel government. And he was there for five years and then I was up in a refugee camp in Kenya. So by about--he came to a refugee camp, like, a year before I left. So I talked to him and I told him, `You know what? You got get out of that military. It ain't going to do good to you.'

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Because he was in the MPLA, the southern army?


CONAN: The SPLA. Southern People...

Mr. DENG: Yeah. SPL--yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DENG: Yeah. And when I came to US, you know, I had been trying to get a word around if somebody can, like, find out where my mother is. But nobody--only showed up people that--a scam, that will ask for money and describe the way--this is really your mother, father is like this and that and that and that. And I was so desperate. Like, if you send me this amount of money, I will just bring her to a refugee camp. And if I send money, then they disappeared, even people that I knew.

And finally, you know, when he heard that, you know, we came to America, so he actually quit military and came to the refugee camp. And he find out about our number and so he contact us and he said he needed an assistance. So I help him, I send him $100, and he was, you know, very appreciative of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DENG: And he asked me what he can do, which I was on my way to ask him that. I said, `Well, you know what? It's very dangerous and I will not ask you to do it since you just got off the military.' He said, `Well, I know all the places. I had trouble in Sudan, and I know dangerous places and also places that are not. So it's OK with me.' And he said he would rather risk his life for the sake of finding our mother, because he realized how desperate I am.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DENG: And so, you know, he went back. I gave him the money, and he went down--he went up to my village, which actually he said he had problems on the way, few problems, complicated, getting through.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. DENG: But he did it, and found Mother and brought her to a refugee camp...

CONAN: And how is she?

Mr. DENG: She was very sick, depressed and she couldn't even talk. She didn't even believe it. And she actually thought that he's kidnapping her. But when I connected with her and I talked to her, you know, it was just such a great moment, we're crying on the phone and--yeah.

CONAN: Almost 20 years since you saw her?

Mr. DENG: Yeah.

CONAN: Do you remember what life was like when you lived with her? As I understand it, the name of your village is Jewel(ph)?

Mr. DENG: Yes.

CONAN: What was life like there? Do you remember?

Mr. DENG: Yeah, the life was, you know, such a simple life of parents keeping cattle and farming. And so the place is kind of lush, green and beautiful. There're animals all around. Wild animals come every day, every morning. And I remember it used to be ostriches coming to our house and eat tender plants and I would sit there and watch them all day, even giraffes. So it was really beautiful to me as a young boy to see all this nature that I was in, nature, until it was disturbed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The war was all around you, of course, and finally came to your village.

Mr. DENG: Yeah. All the villages that were in southern Sudan were invaded finally. And everything was just a wreck and ...(unintelligible). So the future that I was seeing now was, like, vanishing from that day.

CONAN: Hmm. Let me ask you--we're gonna to ask you more, obviously, about your story, but before the show began, we got an e-mail from a woman named Jane, Jane who's worked on UN staff in many parts of the world including some of the areas along the Sudan and Somali borders and Kenya. And she asked us to bring up the subject of `Where are the girls of equivalent ages to these lost boys? As remarkable as the lives of these lost boys are, many of them have also had remarkable opportunities their female counterparts never had. In my opinion,' she said, `it's the girls who have truly been lost.' Did you have sisters? What happened to the girls who were your age in your village?

Mr. DENG: Most of the girls were captured and were taken to the north, where whatever they do them is--I mean, I can't imagine, but I had seen some raping, too, that somebody described in another village that was really terrible raping to girls and women. But there were some lost girls that were with the lost boys, and some of them made it through Ethiopia, they made it to the camp. But most of them actually died in the war, 'cause in Africa, or actually in Sudan, women actually rely on men a lot. And despite there were adults trying to take care of the boys and guide them through the walk, few adults, it still didn't really help. And when we came to a refugee camp, some of the lost girls that came--you know, by then they were, like, teen-agers, so a lot of them were placed in the foster families, you know, parents. Foster, actually--foster families.

CONAN: Foster families.

Mr. DENG: Yeah. Yeah. And they stayed up there as, you know, they were coming, growing to be more mature, a lot of them--some of them got married and some of them got pregnant. And some of them, like, single, you know, mothers up in the camp now. And a few of them that had the chance because they started with girls first--so a hundred lost boys actually made it, I think, to America in 2000. But then I think the INS maybe realized that maybe they have to bring boys first before they can bring girls. So the next girls were in process in the camp. But the one that were--families had a process to go to Canada and Australia.

CONAN: You talk about the walk. Tell us a little bit more about that. Obviously, your village was attacked by government troops on horseback, terrible things happened. And all you had to do was to walk?

Mr. DENG: Yeah. You know, after I went, then I didn't even realize I had, like, ran for three days or just, like, ran for your life. And...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. How old were you?

Mr. DENG: I cannot really recall how old I was because in my village, people don't keep the track of ages, you know, how old you are, and don't have any birth certificate and...

CONAN: But five, six, seven, eight?

Mr. DENG: Yeah, something like that. About seven, maybe, I guess. Seven. I was a little bit tall and skinny. And so when I found out--myself going out of breath and I was crying and the adults were collecting all the kids before actually to find out if they can get them back to their parents. So I when I told them from Jewel, they say, `Well, your village is kind of far away, but we'll take you to the safe place that is actually going to be safer until you find your family.' So the safe place actually ended up to be three months of walk.

CONAN: Three months of walking.

Mr. DENG: Yeah, three months of walk. And all the boys were, like--from village to village were, like, being collected. And somehow adults would say, `Well, you know what? In a way, mostly all the boys get killed now. There are new rules for the government now is whipping--like, wiping out all the men in south Sudan. So there will be no men.' So three months of walk, we--that through walk was a lot.

CONAN: Hang with us. We're going to have more with Alepho Deng and also with Judy Bernstein about the story of the lost boys of Sudan, and take your calls. If you have questions, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest is Alephonsion Deng. He's the co-author of a new book, "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky." It tells the story along--his story, his brother's and his cousin's story. All three are refugees from Sudan's civil war, lost boys who eventually found their way to San Diego in the United States. Judy Bernstein is also with us. She wrote the forward to the book. If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And, Judy, let me bring you into the conversation. As you found out that some of these lost boys were coming to San Diego, I know that there was anticipation that they--well, I think "Lord of the Flies" was a frequent reference.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I'd been asked to mentor them by a student of mine at San Diego State University. And, you know, I knew they would be teen-agers now and they'd grown up without parents. So I think all of us at International Rescue Committee were wondering how this resettlement process would go. But the minute I met them, I had a completely different impression.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, what was it that changed your mind?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Well, they were very gracious, very polite, very dignified, very kind. And I could just see that in spite of the war and all they'd been through, that they'd really had some great parenting maybe when they were young and had learned a lot in the boarding schools in the camp.

CONAN: Resilient.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Resilient, too.

CONAN: I know one of the first places you took them to was a Wal-Mart. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I met them on their third day in the United States and they hadn't really been to many places. We went out to lunch for fast food first, and then I wanted to take them to get their first pair of new clothes, or what I thought was probably their first pair of new clothes, knowing what they'd been through.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: So we went to Wal-Mart and they selected some pants and some T-shirts. And then we walked around the store, and most of the things in the store were completely uninteresting to them. They didn't know what they were, what they were for, `What was all this stuff on the shelves?' until we got to the school supplies aisle. And the thing they wanted were these little 69-cent composition books to write down what they were experiencing and to write stories, they said.

CONAN: Those composition books then the beginning of the book that's now been published.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: They were. About a month later, they handed me stories on green composition paper, and I saw how well they wrote and how moving the stories were.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. Hugo. Hugo's calling from Perth Amboy in New Jersey.

HUGO (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.


HUGO: Thank you for taking my call. And first of all, all my sincere admiration for the endurance and courage of your guest today. A quick question: Now that he's in the United States, what are his feelings for a country that has extended open arms and yet at the same time took so long even to accept that a genocide of Christians was taking place in the Sudan, very much like in the case of Rwanda, while other genocides were quickly to be accepted and even publicized? What is his take on this? Thank you. I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thank you for the call, Hugo. Alepho?

Mr. DENG: Yes. Well, actually, that's more like a political question. And with the war, it takes everybody, like, you know, equally. And for my case, coming to a new country, all I was--you know, wish is just to survive in my country. And since I got here--which I never thought I would make it to America or make it through that war.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DENG: But that is--you know, that's a good question to ask the government, the actual rebel real government. And this is more political stuff that--dealing with why the United States doesn't step in like it did to other countries. So this is--I don't know what is behind that. I'm not sure. And that's why I just--I didn't put down my opinion; I only wrote about my life, what I had seen.

CONAN: And what happened to you.

Mr. DENG: What happened to me and how that had hurt me so bad.

CONAN: Hmm. Let me ask you that point, then, about resilience that I was talking with Judy about just a moment ago. After those experiences, how could have the buoyancy, the love of learning that you still have?

Mr. DENG: Well, I had just seen so much that it opened me up to see a broader side of myself and all the questioning. So for me, to make a new life to myself is to focus on education and be able to know the world a lot better. And I also wanted to adapt in my new country and mingle with people and that they need me to know the language better so I can communicate with, which, of course, the first two years, I had a lot of troubles with what I say and how I reacted to people telling me things and just acted, you know, so bad to them.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dot. Dot's calling from Salt Lake City in Utah.

DOT (Caller): Hi. First of all, I'm so, so proud of him, that not only did he survive life, but he embraces it. And I wondered, do you feel like God did this, man did this? What's your feeling or belief in higher power or God now that this has occurred? And did you pray during the horrific events, and do you pray now?

Mr. DENG: I still do pray now. And I also pray in my--actually, where I was in Sudan. And it's like an individual survival. So what I will do is ask God, say, `Well, God, I don't know where you are, but just--here I am. I'm here, just the only boy mixed with all this group of which I didn't know them. And there are no parents. And all--I don't know what to expect next. But you are the one that will guide me through this. So whatever happens, it's you.' And that way, sometimes it sort of motivates me despite sometime we pray in groups, you know. So I...

DOT: Mm-hmm. So you had some amazing faith that carried you through this.

Mr. DENG: Yeah...

DOT: Almost...

Mr. DENG: ...I had some faith and I think so.

DOT: Wow.

Mr. DENG: And I think that came with my family before that. They believe in the traditional, you know, gods and prayed, but they still mostly think there's only one god.

DOT: And did you feel like you had a guardian angel? Did you feel like the parents that were dead, the family that had gone before you to the other side, did you feel them near in your survival?

Mr. DENG: No, I didn't feel that. I didn't feel they were near. But I sort of feel that what I had--actually, I sort of had this feeling that I'm going to make it. That's the feeling that I had. And...

DOT: God bless you.

Mr. DENG: Thank you.

CONAN: Dot, thanks very much for the call.

DOT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get somebody else on the line. Frank. Frank's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

FRANK (Caller): Yes. Thank you. I just wanted to make a comment. We have 50 lost boys from Sudan who have come to Charlotte to live, and it is truly a remarkable story. And you've already discussed what happened to them in their homeland, but since coming to Charlotte, out of 50 young boys, 48 have a GED--in other words, they are through with their high school. And out of 48 that have their GED, 32 are in college. They have all worked, sometimes two or three jobs, night shift. They've taken no government aid, no welfare, and they're truly remarkable to think about doing this, having come here, never turned on a light switch, and they are truly wonderful young men.

CONAN: Hmm. Judy Bernstein, a hundred came to San Diego. Are the numbers similar there?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Very similar. We have an education fund in San Diego, and any of the boys who are furthering their education qualify. And last semester, we had 77 out of 100. But at least 10 or 15 of those had already finished a two-year occupational training program at Job Corps. So the numbers are very high. They're all working. I don't think any are taking government aid at all.

CONAN: And the educational skills--Were there schools at these refugee camps?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Yes, they had schools. Actually, the schools were quite good. There was very little food--about a half a cup of cornmeal a day--but my feeling was is that when they arrived here, although they say it was the equivalent of eighth grade, most of them had pretty near a high school equivalent education. And they needed to get the GED technically in some states to go to community college, but in California, you can go to community college without that. And about 40 of them are in community college, and went straight in there and are doing fine.

FRANK: Neal?

CONAN: Yes, go ahead, Frank.

FRANK: I would like to ask a question. How do we account for the fact that they all have such good work ethics, that they all study hard? And how do we account for that when a portion of our population born here do not understand the American Dream, but these young boys do?

CONAN: Alepho, do you want to try to tackle that?

Mr. DENG: Yeah. The thing is American people and young kids that have been born into a lot of things and I think they take things for granted. But for us, it was just coming from a fire to a cold place now or a warm place that is comfortable, whereas, you know, we had slept on the floor with no blankets, we had walked, like, three days walk with no food, with no water. So that--confident you can make that. So the same confidence and the same spirt that we survive, we didn't want to let it go. We wanted to be the example to people that have a good life. So we also want to work our way to that level of life, that they can see it doesn't matter how much you had been through, you still can do something for yourself.

CONAN: Do you also make sure--do you keep in touch with each other and make sure that if somebody's having difficulty, you guys help him along?

Mr. DENG: Yes. We actually sometimes come together and we meet, and we do little events. And sometimes we advise each other. And some lost boys that find themselves very adaptable, they say, `Well, you can tell me anything to do now,' since they are grown men right now. But still, we still have that responsibility for each other, and we still do care. If one is not working and doesn't have a job, the other can pay. Like, my other roommate, you know, he's not working; he has not been working. And we just pay the rent anyway.

CONAN: What do you do for a living?

Mr. DENG: I work as a file clerk at Kaiser Permanente, and then I take classes at City College.

CONAN: You're also an actor, as I understand.

Mr. DENG: Yeah. Well, I haven't had a lead role, but hopefully someday....

CONAN: Well, tell us...

Mr. DENG: ...at some...

CONAN: You were in one movie.

Mr. DENG: Yeah, I was a core group actor in "Master and Commander," and it was such a great experience for me, despite the fact that I was still in my past life and on the set I would always have headache 24 hours, and I was very angry to the crew and my also core group actors. But it was a different world, you know, it was like a world of kind of little bit different the way I thought in my mind how to make movies. But I learn a lot just watching Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and Peter Weir, you know, directing. I just sit and watch them, and when I got back and I went back to college and the few classes that I took that had really fun--sort of like actually give me the rhythm to analyze all the stuff they were doing.

CONAN: We're speaking with Alephonsion Deng and with Judy Bernstein, two of the authors of the book "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mike. Mike's with us from Cape Coral in Florida.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: Yeah. I have a question. I can relate to what he's saying because I'm myself from Liberia, West Africa. I came here during the civil war up there. I was lucky enough, you know, to come to America. And since I've been here, I haven't seen my mother for 22 years, and I'm trying to get some preparation to go back to Liberia to bring her over here, so the 18th of this month I'm traveling to Liberia. My question is now that he's here in the States, what kind of action is he taking now to sort of go back to get his mother over here?

Mr. DENG: Yeah. Actually at this particular time I'm trying to get myself, you know, in a better shape. What I mean by that is get out that revenge and anger and depression--you know, get rid of all those stuff and so that I'm able to help somebody, and that is if I also help myself, so what I'm doing now is taking time and to share my story with young people, talking to a community college and universities and also the Amnesty International, so it's already a little help though, and they had me taking few actions signing the petitions and getting the word out to American people something that good can happen. It start like that, but I'm still just taking my time.

CONAN: Are you planning to bring your mother back here to the States, though?

Mr. DENG: I have that plan, but I haven't brought up that to her because maybe not. She--few months ago she couldn't even talk, you know, to me about anything at home, every time I ask a question--What happened to this and that person?--you know, she was like skip those, so I realized she needs some time. But I have that plan, so see what she will say about that, if she wants to come to the States.

CONAN: Mike, good luck.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

MIKE: Good luck to you, too. Bye.


And just before we let you go, I do need to ask: Eventually do you hope if the peace agreement holds, if new government takes control in Khartoum and Sudan's civil wars--another one in Darfur--if that can be calmed down, do you plan to go home to Sudan to rebuild a life there?

Mr. DENG: I do not plan to actually go and build a life there, but I plan actually to make a life in my country that I am right now, which is America, but the plan I have is just to help people out there, and I am just hoping if they change the government and stop that genocide that had been going on in southern Sudan years ago--stop that in Darfur right now, that would be something good. And that's why I always wish the United States step in, take away the stupid leaders that kill innocent people for no good cause. And (unintelligible) somebody's future ...(unintelligible) our generation, you know, just grow up seeing death and will never have even the insight to see a lot.

CONAN: Alepho Deng, thank you very much for joining us today and telling us some of your story. We appreciate it.

Mr. DENG: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Judy Bernstein, thanks to you as well.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: The book is "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan."

When we come back from the break, a short history from the gruesome American chapter in history known as lynching.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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