They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
Some students here at Santa Monica College complain about walking more than a few blocks when the parking situation is dire. This is quite mild compared to walking through hundreds of miles through a war-torn countryside. Now try that at the benign age of 11.
This may sound like a Hollywood script, but this is the true story of over 27,000 Sudanese refugees termed as the "lost boys." These boys all lost their homes, most lost their family and only slowly are they receiving help from the western world.
On Tuesday, Alephonsion Deng a "lost boy" himself, and Judy Bernstein, a councilwoman at the International Rescue Committee and co-writer of Deng's book "They Poured Fire on us From the Sky" arrived on campus to give a brief presentation regarding the situation that many "lost boys" are still facing today.
Students poured in rapidly, most in large groups, and before you could blink the seats were already spoken for. This left the stragglers standing in the back, and eventually even room to stand became scarce. After Ms. Bernstein spoke briefly and the episode of "60 Minutes" featuring the "lost boys" was shown, it became apparent to everyone there why this room was packed so densely. Images of emaciated boys covered the screen and the refugees began to tell the cameras of their grim travels; each story as heart breaking as the previous one.
However, soon sighs of relief came about the room when the speaker began to talk of the International Rescue Committee's effort to rescue these "boys," now men, from their exile and bring them to the United States with promise of a hopeful future.
These refugees have trouble adapting to even the most trivial of American luxuries, mistaking hair-dryers for guns and struggling with the concept of ceiling fans. As the narrator put it, it was as though they had traveled hundreds of years into the future.
Sympathy and disappointment seemed to cloak the room when the man responsible for the telling of this story strode up to the podium. It was "lost boy" Alephonsion Deng. As the giant-like man spoke with pure humility and grace, students couldn't help but notice that his English was better than most students on campus, with perfect grammar and quite a few five-dollar words.
If he didn't have an accent it would be hard to notice that he wasn't from America. Like most of the "lost boys" we saw in the video, he is now pursuing a degree from an American college. Now that he has the opportunity to reclaim his life, he isn't giving up on it. "Education is my mother and father," said Deng as he proudly told his tale.
He doesn't tell his tale for self-satisfaction or to gain profit. He and Ms. Bernstein wanted nothing more than to inspire the students to care about the matter at hand. "With students, I don't think donations are the thing. Students are the activists and catalysts to making other things happen. Putting pressure on representatives and starting groups.
There have been groups started all over the country regarding African genocide. I see a real emerging interest in things outside our borders," said Bernstein. Mr. Deng also shares his partner's passion for influencing Americans regardless of the horror of reliving his fearsome past every time he tells his tale.
"All memories are there. I don't try to block them out, but I try to understand what I can do with them. I am ready to emotionally express what I remembered. It's my past so it doesn't go anywhere, but I try not to live in there, I try to look ahead in my life. I try to follow the light," said Deng without the slightest hint of emotional disturbance or discomfort.
A man true to his words, he really does leave his past where it belongs and works everyday towards the bright future, which he is helping to create for those refugees still in Africa. His co-writer and friend Judy Bernstein was not ready to forget the past so quickly, explaining exactly how the situation in the region arose.
"Our government created the war. America went in and was drilling oil for 20 years, and financing the northern government. That balance of the conflict was upset, and it went from being small skirmishes and a regular kind of dispute to a full on genocide which killed 2.5 million people and displaced 5 million, who are still suffering. I mean there's really no viable support for these people," says Bernstein.
"Perhaps it was our gluttonous pursuit of petrol-dollars which turned religious tension into a full-scale war," Bernstein said. However, if this disquisition taught the students one thing, it's that it's never too late to turn things around. Even if you aren't in the financial condition to be funding the rescue of a refugee, you can still take the atmosphere of compassion with you. You can still concern yourself with informing more and more people about the human rights atrocities.
Deng and Bernstein reiterated this message throughout the presentation. Deng, in his accent-coated English put it best when he said "I think this next generation is gonna make a huge change, much more than right now. They have a different mindset, they are so good with connecting with what is happening in the world and relating those individual stories with themselves. So I find that the next generation is going to be completely different and it will make a significant change to this third world country," Deng said.
Deng, his brother Benson Deng, and Ms. Bernstein's bestselling book, "They Poured Fire on us From the Sky" is on bookshelves now.