Sudanese Refugee's Life A Lesson For City Students
By JODIE MOZDZER
The Hartford Courant
November 21, 2008
Gabriel Bol Deng's bracelet bears the message: "Education is my mother and father." His heart bears the memories of war and poverty from his village in southern Sudan.
Deng recounted his tale of poverty, violence and the redeeming effects of education to students at Hartford Public High School this week. The themes resonated with the students, who said his story put their lives in perspective. Deng's village, Ariang, was attacked by Sudanese militiamen in 1987. He escaped, but many of his neighbors were killed and he never saw his parents again. During his escape, Deng faced crocodiles in the Nile River, waterless nights in the deserts of Sudan and worries about what happened to his family.
After spending several years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, Deng came to Syracuse, N.Y., through the United Nations refugee relocation program. Now a graduate student at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, Deng speaks to church groups and students about overcoming the worst.
"I talk to students, hope they can overcome their difficulties," Deng said. "I hope to inspire people. Nothing can prevent you from overcoming. Really, you are far better off than students in Sudan."
But Deng's main goal is to return to Sudan and build a school for the Sudanese students who now gather outdoors in the shade of trees to learn.
"It's more than building a school because a school is more than a building," Deng said.
His plans include drilling wells in the village to provide clean water to the students and their families, teaching the villagers how to make bricks to build the school and getting vaccinations for the people of Ariang.
His mission gains support among the high school students he speaks to, who, like Dominique McFee, are often stunned by the problems Deng's people face.
"I thought it was hard for me, having to deal with gangs and fighting all of the time," said McFee, a junior at Hartford Public, referring to his childhood in New York. "I realize that was nothing."
McFee, after hearing Deng speak, promised to help by selling candy bars at school, a project he is setting up with the help of dean of students John Hayes.
It was Hayes' son, also John Hayes, who brought Deng to Hartford Public. The younger Hayes is a student at Lyman Memorial High School in Lebanon, where his senior project is raising money and awareness for Deng's project, called H.O.P.E for Sudan Inc.
Deng is looking to raise $150,000 for his school. He has about $60,000 now, about $2,000 of which has come from Hayes' efforts, selling bracelets and T-shirts.
"I just wanted to spread awareness about Sudan, and how it needs education to get out of poverty and war," the younger Hayes said.