Feature: Surviving Tomorrow


Published on

For much of Thon Deng’s life, staying alive was the overriding priority. One of Sudan’s “lost boys,” Deng survived years of war, terror and starvation. He’s now building a new life in the United States and helping those still in need back in Sudan.

Published in: Education
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Feature: Surviving Tomorrow

  1. 1. fALL 2008 www.sjsu.edu 21 | homecoming A week of fun for all 14 | Surviving Tomorrow A Sudanese student’s story 10 | Wired 24/7 Think you’re tech savvy? Think again.
  2. 2. volume 16 - number 1 | fall 2008  sjsu washington square is published quarterly by the Office of public affairs, San José State University  president jon whitemore  vice president for university advancement Fred Najjar  editor Sylvia Light  alumni editor Kat Meads  art direction/design Eunice Ockerman this publication is available in alternate formats. For an accommodation, please call 408-924-1166. subscription information sjsu washington square is provided to all sjsu almuni. to change your subscription, go to www.sjsu.edu/wsq/subscriptions, or phone : 408-924-1166 ; or via usps mail : WSQ Editor / Sjsu / One Washington Square / San Jose, CA 95192-0005. online at www.sjsu.edu/wsq on the cover SJSUseniorThonMajakDeng(above)spentmorethanadecadeinrefugee campsinEthiopia,KenyaandSudanbeforegettingresettledinthe UnitedStatesin2001.AnassociateproduceroftheEmmy-nominated documentary“TheLostBoysofSudan,”Dengalsoco-foundedCoalition oftheWilling,anonprofitorganizationthatraisesfundsandawareness abouttheongoingneedsinsouthernSudan. Photograph:SharonHall 2 From the editor 3 Letters 4 Quicktakes/Updates 7 Spotlight Willcollegestudentsvote inthepresidentialelection? 8 Panorama Comingupwithsolutionstolife’severyday problems. 10 Wired 24/7 WriterMansiBhatiaventuresintotheplurking, tweetingworldofWeb2.0. 14 Surviving tomorrow FormuchofThonDeng’slife,stayingalivewas theoverridingpriority.Hisindomitablespirit helpedhimthroughyearsofwar,terrorand starvation. 18 Sports! SpartanStadiuminherjubileeyear 22 Noteworthy JennyDo:Alitigatorandartist withapassionforhelpingothers. 25 From alums 29 Spartan Heritage 30 My VIP inthisissue sharonhall fall 2008  sjsu Washington Square  1
  3. 3. Ug a n da juba bor De mo cr at ic r ep u bl ic of c ong o CENTRAL AFRICAN r ep u bl ic CH AD l i b ya eg y p t s au di a r a bi a et h iop i a SU Da N k e n ya
  4. 4. Now 30 and a senior in economics, Thon Majak Deng looks likeanyotherSanJoséStatestudent,sportingaSanJoséSharks jacketandcarryingacopyofTheQuietAmerican.Butthestory of how he got here is both humbling and remarkable. “I still remember that morning,” he says. “My sister came running into my room and said, ‘Thon, Thon wake up! We need to go!’ Then I realized there was shooting and bombing going on, and people running everywhere in town.” His sister left him with a woman from town and prom- ised to return with a car and her husband, headmaster of the town’s school. But the fighting was getting closer and every- one was fleeing. The woman taking care of Deng began to run. He followed. “Afterrunningforabout30minutes,aToyotacamebyand it stopped. My sister jumped out of the car to take her daugh- ter,whowasaboutmyageandalsorunninginthecrowd,and left me there,” recalls Deng, his voice drifting off. “I looked around and there was nobody, so I kept running.” One of thousands of “lost boys” displaced by civil war in Sudan,DengfledtoEthiopiain1987.Hewalkedamonglions and hyenas at night to avoid the brutality of the sun. He ate mud and drank water only when he was lucky enough to find them. He walked with strangers toward a country he’d never seen, not knowing where he would sleep or what the next day would bring. “It was difficult to survive,” he says of what would be the firstofmanyuncertainjourneys.“Therewasnofood.There weremanypeoplelikeme,separatedfromfamilybythewar, traveling east to where there was no sound of guns.” The sound of guns has filled Sudan’s countryside for muchofthelasthalfcentury.DominatedbyIslamicmilitary regimes since gaining independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan’s two civil wars were rooted in the Muslim north’s social,politicalandeconomicoppressionofthemostlynon- Muslim south. More than two million have been reported dead and at least another four million have been displaced. War’s children Deng was among many refugees displaced repeatedly. War betweenEthiopiaandneighboringEritreaforcedthousands ofchildrenoutofEthiopia’sUnited Nations- and American Red Cross-supported camps back to Sudan. “There were about 22,000 boys of 8, 9 and 10, and some girls without parents,” recalls Deng. “When we returned to Sudan, only 17,000 arrived. Nobody knows what happened totherestofthem.Becausetherewasintensefightingthere, maybe some were shot in the crossfire.” Having lived in the Ethiopian camp for four years, Deng foundhimselfbackinSudan,againsupportedbytheUnited Nations, but in more precarious circumstances. “Sudan is Sudan,” he says, which means the government had access to the refugees. Government forces mobilized and attacked the town where Deng and the others had been living for just eight months. At 13, Deng had to run again. “WespentthreemonthswalkinginthedeserttowardKenya,” he says. “You can’t walk in the winter because it rains too much.Theonlysafetimeissummer,whichmakesthedesert hot and dry, but it’s better because there are no difficulties with mosquitoes.” Fighting broke out early in the morning in his village in southern Sudan. Without food, water or family, he ran for three weeks through barren desert to find safety in an Ethiopian refugee camp. He was nine years old. Tawneechan fall 2008  sjsu Washington Square  15
  5. 5. When Deng returned to Sudan, he took in the life he left behind, visiting family in simple homes made of mud and straw, watching boys fish in a shallow tributary of the Nile River, and walking among “cattle camps” and farms. Deng reached the Kakuma Refu- gee Camp in northern Kenya where he would stay for nine years. Although he was able to attend school for the first time and complete high school, camp restrictionsandinadequatefoodrations made every day a struggle for survival. “Life in the Kenyan camp was not equaltohowKenyanslived,”saysDeng, who likened conditions to those in a concentrationcamp.“Manythingswere lacking; we were not allowed to leave the camp and the food rations were not enough. Sometimes I went to school with hunger because I hadn’t eaten the night before.” Every 15 days, each person was given one kilogram of corn—which contains roughly the number of calo- ries an average American eats in two days. Sometimes people would finish their rations within five days and have to wait 10 days for the next ration to come.Teamsof15wouldcookandshare one kilogram of corn each day to avoid starvation. “It was a hardship,” says Deng. “At least it was safe in the camp because there were no attacks.” Trading the uncertainty of living as a target in southern Sudan for near- starvation, Deng and thousands like him endured unimaginable trials, los- ing their childhoods in an adult war. Resettlement was a slow process, with the first group of boys leaving for the UnitedStatesin2001.ForDeng,agrown manof23,movingtoAmericameantyet another unpredictable journey. Sudden possibilities If coming to the United States was fraught with uncertainty, it was also charged with possibility. Getting to whatisnowhislastsemesteratSanJosé State has brought more than his share of challenges, but Deng doesn’t dwell on the negative. “Sometimes God does what you don’t know,” says Deng of his expe- riences since arriving in San José. “If you look around, you see all different kinds of people and you find that there are other people like you. Why not you, if other people can make it? It’s a good hope I see.” Deng’sindomitablespirithascarried him through each day since fleeing the attack on his village in Sudan. Lydia Ortega, chair of SJSU’s Department of Economics and Deng’s academic advi- sor, wanted more for him than to live day by day. At their first meeting, she asked about his career goals and plans, but didn’t make any headway. “Allofasuddenitoccurredtomethat the concept of planning for the future was foreign to him,” says Ortega. “For much of his life, he just had to think every day about how not to be dead that day.” Yet Deng has built a future taking things one day at a time. When sup- port from Catholic Charities expired just three months after arriving in the U.S., he found a job at Fry’s Electron- ics and an apartment to share with two other Sudanese refugees. When the job and the apartment didn’t work out, he accepted lodging from Fr. Noel Senevi- ratne, a retired priest. 16 sjsu Washington Square  fall 2008
  6. 6. To help Deng and Coalition of the Willing get assistance to southern Sudan, visit www.coalitionofwilling.org. “Theyareverydetermined,”saysSen- eviratne of Deng and the two others who lived in an annex to his San José home.“Theyalwayswantedtosomehow better themselves.” After hosting the young men for nearly three years, Seneviratne worked with the Santa Clara County Hous- ing Authority to get Deng and his roommates the apartment where they currently live. Deng focused on getting aneducation,beginningfirstatDeAnza College and then transferring to San José State in 2005. “IthinkThonhasastrongeducation,” says Ortega. “But he also has wisdom from his experiences and an apprecia- tion for life that will take him far.” “Lost” and found Along with wisdom beyond his years, Deng has an unwavering sense of duty to those still in Sudan—to family and friends he lost decades ago. In December 2007, Deng, a freshly minted U.S. citizen, traveled through Sudan’s capitol in the heart of the Mus- lim-dominated north to go home. After arrivinginJuba,acityinsouthernSudan, a six-hour bus ride over dusty, unpaved roadsreturnedDengtohisvillageinBor County for the first time in 20 years. “It was hard, it was sad, it was joy- ful,” says Deng about reuniting with sisters Achieu and Ayen, and brother Deng Majak Deng. “I felt bad that my ownbrotherandsistersdidn’trecognize me, being away all that time.” During the month-long stay, Deng took in the life he left behind, visiting familyinsimplehomesmadeofmudand straw, watching boys fish in a shallow tributaryoftheNileRiver,andwalking among“cattlecamps”andfarms.Seeing thetremendousneedsofhisvillage—no electricity, no sanitary drinking water, inadequate medical facilities, and few schoolsorsuppliesforhundredsofthou- sands of children—was overwhelming for Deng. How does one man help hundreds of thousands when he can’t even afford an operation to remove bullets from his sister’s back and knee, wounds left untreated since the war? Tomorrow comes He doesn’t do it alone. In 2005, Deng co-founded Coalition of the Willing (COW), a non-profit that raises funds and awareness about ongoing needs in southern Sudan. The 2005 peace agree- ment between northern and southern Sudan gave the south autonomy for six years, and stipulates that the south will voteforeitherunityorindependencein 2011. With the world’s eyes on the dev- astationintheDarfurregioninthewest, Deng worries about the future of south- ern Sudan during this unstable time. “Tothinkaboutthefuturewithhope might bring the good sense that people shouldn’t go back to war again,” he says. “But many people want to be indepen- dent from the north, so there’s hope on one side and doubt about what’s going to happen.” Milesawayfromhome,Deng’sheart is in Sudan. He works as COW’s trea- surer.Hesendsmoneyheearnsworking part-time at FedEx Kinko’s to Sudan so his niece and cousins can go to school. And he will do much more. “I have to pay back the people who paid for the life I have, my education,” he says. “I will pay back my debt by doing good for the people who need it most. The more we stand up—if we do good for other people, we will be suc- cessful. v —Jody Ulate ’05 fall 2008  sjsu Washington Square  17