Sudanese refugee Joseph Deng settled into a Philadelphia suburb six years ago, but some days he feels like he's caught between heaven and hell. Enticed by the American Dream, he graduated from high school, bought a 1995 Acura Integra, enrolled in computer courses, accepted a full-time job as a certified computer technician and co-founded a small computer business. He became an American citizen in July, and now he's now helping to build a school in Sudan. This is the good life, he figures, as close to heaven on earth as he'll ever get. "I myself, I enjoy living here. I'm happy." Then a front-page headline, a news flash across the television screen, even a childhood memory reminds Mr. Deng of the hell raging in his native land, where conflict continues to engulf the Darfur region in western Sudan. "Life is short there," he says. "We are talking here, and someone is dying there." Last Friday, Mr. Deng and Megan Mylan, co-director of the award-winning documentary "Lost Boys of Sudan," visited Princeton to discuss the film, its relevance to the Darfur conflict and the new generation of Sudanese refugees fleeing the African country. A morning program at the Princeton Public Library drew a packed crowd, including students from Princeton High School and members of Raising Awareness Destination: Darfur, also called RADD. The library linked with Princeton University, which hosted a second program Friday night. "Being an American is an opportunity that other people don't really get," Mr. Deng, 23, says. "People in Sudan are desperate, they need help. I tell my story so people will not forget and do something to help get peace." The Darfur conflict, Mr. Deng says, is similar to the civil unrest that ravaged his southern Sudanese village more than a decade ago. He was left homeless, separated from his mother, sister and brother as family members fled in different directions to escape gunfire. Mr. Deng eventually reached the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. He was not orphaned like many of the other children at the camp, but he became known as one of the "Lost Boys" because he arrived without parents. At times, life was miserable, he remembers. But the children refused to let their spirits die. They comforted each other and created extended families. They shared food and clothing, played basketball and soccer, studied, and sang and danced, he says. The U.S. Refugee Program has helped an estimated 4,000 "Lost Boys" relocate to America. Some moved to New York, Illinois and Texas; others to Nebraska, North Dakota and California, among other states. The group included roughly 150 girls. Mr. Deng was placed in Soudertown, Pa. Although he is not featured in "Lost Boys of Sudan," his journey parallels that of Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, the young Dinka men who allowed Ms. Mylan to document their first year in America. With little guidance, the men had to adjust to a new society by enrolling in school, earning driver licenses, finding jobs and paying rent. They struggled to find their place, improve their English and grasp America's worker-bee mentality and materialistic definition of success. While some Americans helped the "Lost Boys" by providing scholarships and furniture, there was still an obvious disconnect between the cultures. Building a life in a new country is far from easy, especially when preconceptions, isolation and loneliness bubble to the surface, Mr. Deng says. However, he is careful not to complain. He escaped death, he explains. He's one of the lucky ones, one of the survivors. Mr. Deng and the other "Lost Boys" survived a civil war that has consumed Sudan since the country gained independence from Britain in 1956. More than 2 million people have died and another 4 million were displaced as northern government officials and southern rebels fought for decades over political autonomy and power, according to Amnesty International, a grassroots organization that fights to protect human rights. The Darfur conflict, which has pitted Arabs and non-Arabs against each other, is rooted in that civil war. The government equipped Arab tribes with new power in 1994, a move that non-Arabs said undermined their authority in the region, according to Amnesty International. Fighting has continued since but intensified in February 2003. At the time, a new armed opposition group, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, ignited another round of unrest by attacking government troops for failure to protect non-Arab villagers. An armed opposition group, Justice and Equality Movement, also emerged. The government and its proxy militia, the Janjawid, responded with force, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, according to Amnesty International. Civilians continue to be the victims of the Darfur conflict. An estimated 300,000 have died and another 2 million have been forced to flee their homes, the organization reports. In recent months, the conflict has gained international attention, with celebrities such as George Clooney, Bette Midler and Oprah Winfrey rallying to stop the fighting. Mr. Deng is pleased they're using their voices to raise awareness. He plans to do the same, though he says he has no solution. Just hope. Hope that Sudan will find its way to peace so no more lives are lost and no more children are orphaned. Hope that no more families will have to flee their homes. And hope that people worldwide will hear his story and get involved, either by writing legislators or providing continued support. "I've seen a lot of appreciation and a lot of love, but there are still concerns and challenges," he says. "Love the life that you are living. Appreciate how other people live, the way the live. But also learn because what you learn will help you and you will (then) help others."
How to get involved
For more information about the Darfur conflict, the "Lost Boys" or how you can help, here is a list of resources: • Amnesty International, a grassroots organization that fights to protect human rights. www.amnestyusa.org. • Raising Awareness Destination: Darfur, also called RADD, is a Princeton-area student group that develops programs and resources regarding the human-rights crisis in Darfur. Adults also participate. The group next meets Sunday, Dec. 17, at 3 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St., Princeton. For information, call (609) 924-9529 or visit www.princetonlibrary.org. • Forgotten Village in Sudan, a Web site created by Joseph Deng to support the construction of a school for children ages 6-18 in the village of Wernyol in southern Sudan. www.forgottenvillageinsudan.org. • "Lost Boys of Sudan," a film about two Dinka men who fled their southern Sudanese village during a civil unrest and were brought to America through the U.S. Refugee program. The film recounts their first year in America. www.lostboysfilm.com.