Q&A: Former Lost Boy of Sudan returns home to build for the future

News Stories, 2 May 2008

© UNHCR
Valentino Achak Deng at UNHCR's World Refugee Day event in San Francisco in June 2007.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 2 (UNHCR) Separated from his family as a child when his village was attacked during Sudan's civil war, Valentino Achak Deng fled on foot with a group of young boys, eventually finding safety in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. The group became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" and in 2001 many of them were resettled to the United States. The story of the hardships Valentino faced as a refugee in north-west Kenya's Kakuma camp and upon arrival in the US, are recounted in the best-selling novelized biography, "What is the What" UNHCR Senior Public Information Officer Tim Irwin reached Valentino by phone in Nairobi in between his frequent trips to his former hometown of Marial Bai in South Sudan. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the project you're working on in South Sudan?

Right now I'm engaged in the construction of a secondary schools complex. It's a project I've funded through a non-profit organization I began with Dave Eggers, who wrote "What is What" We wanted to be able to help give back to my country. In 2003, after 16 years, I went to visit my family in my home village. I found out I was not one of the worst off victims of Sudan's civil war.... The worst victims of the civil war are those who remained in Sudan throughout the conflict, and I wanted to help. So we started the [Valentino Achak Deng] Foundation and used the profits from the book to build a secondary school, a library and a community centre.

You were in Kakuma camp for nearly 10 years. What was it like?

It was a life that had a lot of pain mixed in. First of all, I didn't have any family in Kakuma. My family was the refugee community and UNHCR, who ran the camp. I had many friends; Sudanese, Ethiopian, Rwandan, Kenyan workers and refugees who came from many countries.

Security-wise, Kakuma was protected by the United Nations. Sometimes pockets of local bandits would attack the camp and kill people, but it was not as bad as the situation I had fled from in Sudan. I grew up to become a leader and an educator.... It was in Kakuma that I first went to school. UNHCR supported more than 21 primary schools and three secondary schools and I benefited from that. I also benefited from recreational activities that were sponsored by the UN. That's how I became a community leader in the camp.

What challenges did you face at first in the United States?

In the early days, adjustment was a challenge [after years of living on UN aid in Kakuma camp].... In the US, I had to pay my rent, buy my food and find a job. The job I found was an entry-level job. And even though I thought I was earning a huge amount of money compared to what I had in Kakuma, it wasn't enough. I was worried. Would I become homeless? How would I fund my education? I considered that a challenge.

Why did you want to tell your story and how did you meet Dave Eggers?

I had no plan to tell my story. I knew that I was a refugee ... and in Atlanta, I joined a local organization called the Lost Boys Foundation. They had a programme where they would train refugees to speak with the local community high schools, colleges and universities. Because I used to do this in Kakuma, I began to participate. I realized that there was a need to educate people about what was happening in Sudan.

Sometimes I used to speak at a local high school. But I wanted to do more; I wanted to share my story in a book. So I asked Mary Williams, who was the founder of the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta, to help match me with a writer who could write my biography. She recommended Dave and we began working on the book from there.

Why did you decide to novelize your story?

We were working on it as a memoir. I was very young when I left home and not all of my memories were clear. At a certain point, we realized that we were going to have to use some creativity to tell my story properly.

Have you spoken to refugee returnees in South Sudan?

Yes, there are a lot of people from Kakuma who went back to my village and went back to their country. They are happy they are back.... They can now focus on building their lives and their homes. They are doing very well. They have brought new skills from living in a foreign country. Many of the former refugees are now working with the government. Kakuma has brought up a generation of southern Sudanese who might become the leaders of South Sudan.

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