Grasping in the darkness-the hopes of a refugee in Kenya
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Michael Deng was born in Panyagoor Village in South Sudan in 1989
at the height of the civil war between the North and South. At
the tender age of 5, Deng unlike other children who play with
toys, already knew how to hold and use an AK47 gun (Kalachnikov)
that he was supposed to use to help protect his family and his
father’s livestock from the enemy.
The war that lasted decades in Sudan before the South successfully seceded from the North left him scarred just like many South Sudanese children of his time.
“When I remember my childhood, I always feel like crying but then, it is that experience that motivated me to join a communications class,” Deng tells me in an interview.
One morning soldiers from the North attacked and killed his family members as he watched: “First they shot my mum, my sister, my father, and then my brother,” narrates Deng in a shrinking voice. “I took my surviving younger sister’s hand and we ran, but I was not lucky as they still managed to shoot my leg,” says Deng as he pulls up his trouser to show me a bullet scar on his leg.
Luckily the Asiele soldiers (rebels from the South) rescued them and they began a long tedious journey to Lokichoggio, a town in Kenya near the border with South Sudan.
“On the way we drank our own urine because we had no food or water,” he adds.
At Lokichoggio he was admitted into a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) hospital where he stayed for six months before the bullet wound healed. In 1996, Deng and his sister were taken to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya where they joined other minors who were without parents. At the camp he was able to attend both primary and secondary school through the benevolence of an uncle.
“Still I had to do casual jobs in the camp to cater for some of my needs because my uncle had his family and would provide me with only the school fees,” says Deng.
One day while roaming around the Kakuma refugee camp looking for casual work, he met a Kenyan man who was working in the camp. The man invited him to his home and the following morning they left for Uthiru in Kiambu County. Deng fell in love with Uthiru and he decided to stay there working in construction for his upkeep.
“I would carry building blocks and get paid a shilling per block I carried,” says Deng. “How I got the casual jobs in the sites was by God’s grace because most of the construction workers spoke Swahili and here I was speaking broken English. Most of the time I was forced to use sign language to pass my message across," he adds.
One day he met a benevolent South Sudanese who enrolled him in business management at the Kenya Institute of Management. He successfully graduated in 2011 and put up a business, but the thought of fellow refugees still suffering in the camps kept nagging his mind. How could he help them? They needed a voice to tell their story.
Today Michael Deng, 25, is a third year communications student at St. Paul’s University in Nairobi. He managed to enroll and pay his schooling fee using small savings from his business as well as support from the government of South Sudan. He has been attending evening classes so he can run his businesses during the day.
Although today South Sudan is independent from Sudan, Deng, like
many Sudanese refugees, has not gone back to his county. He has
tried going back to South Sudan several times, but life there is
too harsh and he ends up coming back to Kenya.
Humanitarian reports from South Sudan show that South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, is still facing major humanitarian crises- such as lack of adequate food, health facilities, poverty and high illiteracy levels with the country coming second to last in the world.
Deng hopes to finish his studies in Kenya first and become a journalist before going back to tell the story in South Sudan.