As the refugee crisis continues, there has been a chorus of fear in host countries that they will “drain precious state resources” by putting pressure on healthcare, education and welfare systems.
But that’s not the only side of the story. I met an inspiring refugee during the Fragility Forum 2016 - Deng Majok-gutatur Chol – who is living proof of why we need to support refugees like him – especially children.
Driven from his village in South Sudan by a devastating civil war, Deng was one of more than 25,000 boys and girls who ran to safety, leaving their parents behind. Only 10 years old, Deng walked more than a thousand miles, traversing forests, deserts, and rivers in a journey that took nearly four months. He kept moving, at some points going thirsty and hungry for days, to reach Ethiopia.
The three years that followed brought mind-numbing horrors, during which many of his companions – other children – were shot dead or died of exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration. Unfortunately, Ethiopia was not safe for them when they became targets of the conflict there. They fled back to South Sudan and finally, Deng arrived at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
At home, Deng had taken care of the family’s cattle rather than going to school, and he remained illiterate until the age of 13. When given a chance to study in the refugee camp, Deng used trees as a classroom, sandy soil for a notebook, his index finger for a pencil, and his foot as an eraser while learning to read and write. He later taught himself English by comparing the Bible in English and his local language, Dinka, and wrote his own handwritten dictionary.
After a decade in refugee camps or on the run, Deng was one of nearly 4,000 boys and girls, known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, who came to the United States, where he currently lives. While he gained impressive academic credentials at the George Washington University and Harvard’s Kennedy School, it is Deng’s humble beginning as a refugee that shapes his character to stand up firmly for millions of disadvantaged people around the world.
Deng’s life story should serve as a compelling epitome of why we should help millions of refugees regain their dignity, lead a normal life, and send their children to school. Conflicts have forced nearly 24 million children out of schools in 22 countries, according to UNICEF. Deng would have been one of them, but some helping hands assisted him along the way to complete his education.
“No child should experience a massive and abrupt displacement, and no child should lose parental love and parental care,” says 6.4 feet-tall Deng. He hopes to see no child “go through my experience to get education.”
His hard work has not only put him on a path of success, but it also helped the lives of his 13 siblings change for the better. Deng has relocated them from his village to Kenya, where they attend boarding schools and colleges.
With the growing refugee crisis garnering world attention Deng’s message to the world community is “to look at the root causes of wars” and ensure that “violence does not erupt and that we are not caught off guard.”
Deng and a number of his companions were lucky to resettle in more stable places, but 25 years later, the Kakuma refugee camp still houses more than 160,000 people.
“Do you know how much we are wasting in terms of human capacity? The human brain that is just being idle? The energy of these human beings? This is 160,000 brains and their energy that have just gone in 25 years in this refugee camp,” he says.
Unfortunately, protracted refugee situations are not limited to Kakuma camp. Currently there are around 20 million “refugees of concern to UNHCR” around the world, with a large number of them living in places ranging from well-established camps and collective centers to makeshift shelters or living in the open.
We cannot return Deng’s childhood, his parental care, or his siblings that were lost, but today, there are millions of refugee children facing a similar situation across the world that need our help. Deng is an example of what can be achieved when someone is given support and opportunity. While his story is unique, the success he has achieved does not have to be: refugees and their children are future assets for the global community.
How can development agencies help on that front? Deng shared his take after the Fragility Forum: