MIDDLEBURY — Born in one of the world's poorest countries, Peter Garang Deng, 25, was an orphan by the time he was 5 years old. To make matters worse, his native land, Sudan, was consumed by civil war and the family who took him in beat and starved him, he said.
But the Burlington resident managed to flee his country, get an education and come to Vermont to start a new life.
The Sudanese orphan, who recently earned a degree from Champlain College and published a book about his life, will be in Middlebury this Wednesday evening to talk about his experiences.
In an appearance sponsored by the Vermont Book Shop, he will speak at 51 Main from 5:15-6:15 p.m. on June 15.
Deng, who recently published an autoiography called “The Lost Generation: The Story of a Sudanese Orphan,” also founded the New Sudan Jonglei Orphans Foundation in 2010. Known as NSJOF, the Burlington-based nonprofit sponsors the education of orphans from the southern Jonglei region of Sudan.
Written matter-of-factly and with just enough detail to grab readers of all ages, “The Lost Generation” succinctly takes the reader on a journey through Deng's extraordinary life. The book’s title is a reference to the generation of Sudanese youth who have been left homeless, hungry and orphaned due to the country’s civil war.
“The children whose parents were killed in the civil war have it worst and have suffered the most,” he writes. “They are what international humanitarian organizations have come to call a ‘lost generation.’”
But Deng has a different story. In the face of incredible social turmoil, he fortunately found his way at a young age.
Peter Garang Deng’s mother died when he was eight months old and his father — with whom he was very close — died when Deng was six years old. Without parents, he was forced to live with his “evil aunts,” who Deng said would starve and beat him.
“Over the next few years my life became a nightmare,” he writes. “Every single morning I could be found sitting down on the road curb, forcing myself not to cry as I thought about how I would survive the day.”
Living under the cruelty of his tyrannical aunts, he watched many of his other beloved relatives perish. Seeking refuge from his aunts and a cannibal terrorizing his village, he broke one of his tribe’s moral codes: The Dinka, he said, frown upon going to school rather than learning practical skills like raising cattle.
Despite the embarrassment of showing up naked on his first day of school, it was in education that he would find salvation and a future for himself.
A shining pupil, Deng excelled in the classroom. But his academic prowess could not save him from his living conditions.
“Each evening I went home, focused on my exercises, and was beaten. Whether I attended school or not, my treatment remained the same: I was blamed for things that went wrong in the house, was not given the nourishment I needed to succeed, and was increasingly unhappy and distraught,” he writes. “I realized that I would need to leave my village.”
When he was 7 years old, he left home and made his way — hitchhiking from village to village — to a “displaced person’s camp,” where he was got more education. As he finished up elementary school, an old friend of his father’s helped Deng plan to flee the country. At the age of 12, he arrived at the Kenyan refugee camp of Kakuma.
Over the following years, Deng navigated a number of fateful turns and obstacles that only he can properly describe. After more than a decade of struggle, he wound up in Burlington, placed by the U.S. State Department in the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Living and succeeding in Vermont was no easy feat for a man who grew up in Sudan and Kenya. By persevering at the Community College of Vermont, however, he earned admission to Champlain College. After studying at Champlain’s BYOBiz entrepreneurship program for two years, he decided to form NSJOF.
“I founded NSJOF to help kids that are being neglected in the community (of Jonglei),” Deng told the Independent. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other kids.”
NSJOF seeks to provide orphans from southern Sudan with educational opportunities. The foundation raises money for students to attend boarding school in Uganda.
“Kenya and Uganda have very good school systems. You can’t compare them to southern Sudan because (Sudan doesn’t) have any infrastructure in place and the education is still struggling … it’s a mess and it will take time for Sudan to catch up,” said Deng.
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
By the end of 2011, NSJOF hopes to send a total of 10 orphans to schools in Uganda.
“We already have five kids and we’re close to six (that have funding to attend school in Uganda),” said Deng. “We’re down to only four kids to achieve our goal, but we still have six more months to see if we can make it.”
Deng, who graduated from Champlain College in May, is working very hard to develop the foundation. He would like to turn the nonprofit into a way for him to make ends meet, so that he can focus all of his energy on helping Sudanese orphans afford quality education and a better life. At the moment, the foundation hasn’t grossed the amount necessary to pay Deng for his efforts, and so he must work a part-time job in addition to the 40 hours a week that he spends on NSJOF.
His book has also had great success so far, selling out its first printing in its first month. All proceeds from the book will go to benefiting children through NSJOF. As he strives to run a successful nonprofit and support himself, he’s very optimistic and committed to helping Sudanese orphans. In his own words:
“If I, an orphan from a rural area in one of the poorest countries in the world, southern Sudan, can overcome all the difficulties that I went through, then anyone can.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].