TERRE HAUTE —
When Gabriel Bol Deng was 10 years old, his life was turned upside down. His home village of Ariang in southern Sudan was invaded by northern Sudanese militiamen, who killed the villagers and burned their homes.
He fled into the forest and became a refugee, a group known as the “‘Lost Boys of Sudan,’” eventually reaching a camp in Ethiopia where he achieved an education despite the harsh living conditions.
That was 1987, and Deng would evenually make it to America to continue his education and become a United States citizen.
He will bring his survival story to Terre Haute today during his “Power of Hope” presentation at 6 p.m. at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 1532 S. Third St. His presentation will be free and open to the public.
“I want to share with people the experience I have gone through because I hope when people hear it, they are inspired, and they learn that they, too, can overcome obstacles from their childhood,” Deng told the Tribune-Star on Wednesday in a telephone interview from his Syracuse, N.Y., home.
Deng credits his parents with telling him from a young age that he could move all obstacles if he had hope and he worked hard.
“You sometimes have obstacles, but if you keep hoping and perservering, then you can overcome them,” he said.
Along with the photos he shares of his village, he tells how he returned to his former home 20 years after he fled. He found two brothers and uncles who had survived the genocide. His parents had not.
By then, Deng was college-educated, but poor, and he wanted to help the Ariang people, but he did not know how.
“When the war has ended, it doesn’t mean that peace has come,” Deng said. “It’s just a real beginning of a new war to fight poverty, provide health care and build a national identity. I realized the best way to rebuild my own village in southern Sudan was through education.”
He said he saw children attending school under a tree, but in the rainy season — which lasts about five months — the children cannot go to school outdoors. He decided to build a school, and he promised the youths there that he would find a way to do that.
Deng said he came back to America and talked to a college professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., about his hope for Ariang. With some initial seed money from the professor, Deng raised enough funds to have six wells built near his village. They provided the people with safer drinking water and a shorter journey for the children, who had to search for food and water every day.
In fact, one well was drilled next to the new school location so that girls could take their water containers with them on their way to school and after classes could take much-needed water home with them. He found the well being located near the school to be an incentive for adults to send the children to school.
“Part of my approach is involving people in the village in rebuilding it,” Deng said. “These people lost their loved ones, but they have the desire to have a better life.”
The local people made 300,000 bricks to construct the local school, and as they rebuilt their village, they rebuilt their lives with hope, he said.
“It is more about helping the nation’s economy, and involving the local people in that. They will take initiative and ownership because they have put in effort,” he said. “When you sweat for something, there is value to it. There is dignity.”
Deng is the first speaker in the 2013-14 speaker and film series at the CANDLES museum, where founder Eva Kor said the message of hope regularly inspires visitors.
“We are always trying to reach beyond the story of the Holocaust,” Kor said. “Any story that relates to genocide [of] people who are being attacked and killed because of who they are should be interesting to anyone interested in the Holocaust.”
Kor says she finds Deng’s story inspiring, and she can relate to his story of being a child refugee and fleeing for his life to escape genocide. She was the same age — 10 — when her family’s safety was changed by the Holocaust.
“In his case, it was his parents who instilled him with an idea of hope and education,” Kor said. “I don’t remember my parents doing that, by I do recall my mother saying ‘My girls are going to be educated’ to my father.”
With all of the hardships and challenges of surviving during World War II in Europe, Kor said, her mother remained hopeful and inspiring.
“Now, he is inspiring young people in his home country,” Kor said of Deng. “He is building schools for girls and boys. Everyone who wants to be inspired by his story of adversity and hardship and how he overcame it and helps others, should come and hear his story.”
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa