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Years Later, ‘Lost Boy’ Finds Kin, but What About His Mom?

Times Staff Writer

Word came to Benson Deng in a letter from a half-brother.

The mother he had long thought dead might still be alive.

It was 1998 and home for Deng then was an overcrowded refugee camp in a remote part of Kenya. His mother, the letter said, apparently was living in a desolate village in neighboring Sudan -- the war-torn country Deng had fled 11 years before.

Hoping to find her, Deng gave photos of himself to a refugee friend headed for Sudan, but he never heard from the young man again, or from his mother.

“I just prayed that if she was alive, she was OK,” recalled Deng.

But he presumed she was dead, another victim of Sudan’s civil war. “I had gotten used to it -- that now there is no Mum.”

Now, Deng is 25 and living in a three-bedroom flat in suburban San Diego County. He settled here in 2001 after the U.S. government offered about 4,000 Sudanese youths -- known as the Lost Boys of Sudan -- the opportunity to escape Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.

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Deng has a full-time job, drives a shiny black Ford Mustang and is always armed with a cellphone. In Africa, he didn’t even know how to use a regular phone.

But a couple of questions never stopped gnawing at him: Was his mother alive? And how would he ever find her?

*

He was separated from his family in 1987.

Just 7 years old, Deng saw airplanes and watched -- as he would describe years later -- as fire poured from the sky. His parents had sent him to the village of an older sister so he could tend goats while she cared for her new baby. The rumble of gunfire that awakened him reminded Deng of the growl of leopards.

“I ran outside,” said Deng. “People were crying. Dogs were barking. There was a lot of noise. I started running because I was scared. I ran to the bush.”

It was what his father had advised him to do if trouble ever came.

He had known it would.

For decades, civil war in Sudan pitted forces from the predominantly black, animist and Christian south against government forces of the dominant Muslim and Arab north.

A peace accord signed last year officially ended the war, but since 2003 more than 180,000 people have died from disease, hunger and fighting in Sudan’s western Darfur region, according to United Nations estimates.

But in 1987, as northern militiamen destroyed the settlement where Deng’s sister lived, he hid in a thicket. Other villagers soon joined him.

“They are killing our people,” one man said. “We shouldn’t hide here.”

As Deng fled the smoldering hamlet -- wearing only red briefs that were a gift from his father -- he remembered words he had heard his mother speak: “Sudan isn’t safe anymore.”

Deng joined a river of survivors who flowed east into dreary refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia. He was lumped together with thousands of other boys, many from his ethnic Dinka group.

Then civil war erupted in Ethiopia, and in 1991 government troops forced the youths -- by this time almost 20,000 of them -- on a three-month trek back into Sudan.

Some boys were killed by wild animals as they wandered across the hundreds of miles of semiarid plains; others drowned as they struggled to cross a treacherous river. Deng almost met his death under the hooves of a herd of gazelles thundering across the plateau.

As aid groups and journalists would document, thousands died from thirst and starvation.

“I kept thinking about my parents, [hoping] I could actually survive,” said Deng.

After weeks of wandering, he reached a town in eastern Sudan and one day walked to an airfield to see if the U.N. had made food drops for the refugees. He heard a familiar accent, began talking with a young woman and told her his life story.

“You are my uncle’s son,” she told him. His newfound cousin took him in and he lived with her for a while.

It was the first of many coincidences that, in time, would define his future.

Returning from market one day, he saw his cousin talking to a young man, a soldier in the southern Sudanese rebel army. It was one of Benson Deng’s older half-brothers, Yier Deng.

Benson came from a large family. He had four brothers and three sisters, and his mother was the third of his father’s five wives.

Benson went to live with Yier.

Two months later, Yier called Benson out of his hut. Yier was surrounded by a group of little boys. One of them insisted he was Yier’s half-brother, Alephonsion. Yier was doubtful.

“Do you recognize these little boys?” Yier asked.

As Benson would later write: “At first I thought they were friends from Panyido refugee camp in Ethiopia. Then my heart began pounding deeply and I knew at once this was my younger brother, Alepho, whom I’d left home five years earlier.”

Alepho was 10, two years younger than Benson.

“We hugged each other in tears,” Benson wrote.

Soon, attacks by government forces pushed the youngsters back on the run.

In 1993, Benson and Alepho were among 11 lanky, ebony-skinned boys who straggled into Kenya. They settled in Kakuma, a hot, dusty, fly-infested refugee camp.

Benson shared a mud hut with five other boys. He ate one meal a day, typically boiled and mashed maize, beans or wheat flour prepared outside on heated stones and charcoal.

The horror of his ordeal was magnified by a bout of river blindness, a disease caused by worms transmitted in larval form to humans through the bite of a blackfly. The worms migrate under the skin and through the eyes, leaving hideous bumps.

But the camp, which was run by aid groups, was also where Benson learned English. Ostracized by other boys because of his scabby appearance, he studied alone, practicing the British-tinged English he speaks today.

He eventually managed to rid himself of river blindness by ingesting tablets meant to cure worms in dogs.

He had been in the camp five years when he received Yier’s 1998 letter, written in English on flimsy textbook paper, saying Benson’s mother might be alive. The correspondence also confirmed that his father had been killed.

Though buoyed by the news about his mother, the failure to find her after sending photos to Sudan left him discouraged. Then, years later, the opportunity to move to America further dashed hopes of a reunion.

“I thought, now I’m going to go far away. How am I going to search for them?” Benson recalled. “But I knew I had to go.”

At 5 feet 11 inches and 175 pounds, up almost 30 pounds from when he arrived in America in 2001, Benson has acquired a passion for Mexican and Chinese cuisine.

He flashed a toothy grin as he remembered settling into a three-bedroom apartment in La Mesa with three cousins and Alepho, 23, who works as a filing clerk for a healthcare company.

“I didn’t even know where to begin,” said Benson. “I didn’t know how to turn on a TV, turn on a stove or turn on a shower.”

Electric lights scared him.

“I was used to the darkness,” he said.

He has managed to master the complexities of computers and digital cameras. He passed his driving test after three tries, motivated by the gift of the Mustang from a college student who heard him give a speech.

Today, he directs a waste management program that encourages consumers not to overfill their trash cans.

Keen to educate the public about the ongoing crisis in Sudan, Benson, Alepho and a cousin, Benjamin Ajak, have written a book called “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.” It is scheduled to be released Monday.

“It’s a vivid indication of what war does to children,” said Judy Bernstein, who helped edit the book and has become a mentor/mom to several of the lost boys, 144 of whom settled in the San Diego and San Jose areas, according to the U.S. State Department.

“It was a way to try and forget about all that happened,” Benson said.

When feeling down, he plays a “thomo,” a traditional Sudanese five-stringed instrument, and sings melancholic songs about the homeland he left behind.

The phone call came out of the blue in the summer of 2003.

It was Benson’s longtime friend, Santino Deng, who had settled in Canada. They were from the same village and had been hut-mates in Kakuma.

Breathless with excitement, Santino said he had news: “Your brother called from Uganda.”

“Which brother?” asked a stunned Benson.

“Your older brother Nieu-nieu Deng.”

Benson jotted down a phone number and purchased an international calling card. It was supposed to last 30 minutes, but expired after 15. The long-lost brothers spoke in Dinka.

All their siblings had survived, Nieu-nieu said. And then came the news Benson had waited nearly two decades to hear: His mother was alive.

She was very ill, but alive.

Another chance meeting had led to Benson and Nieu-nieu’s telephone reunion. Nieu-nieu had come across a friend from his home village, who mentioned that his son, Santino, had settled in Canada and might know how to find Benson.

Benson and Nieu-nieu continued talking until a voice on the phone interrupted: “You have one more minute.”

Weeks would pass before Benson and Alepho located her. A friend in Kenya brought a cellphone to their mother in Kakuma, but the calls never went through or lasted just seconds.

Finally, at 1 a.m. on Christmas 2004, Alepho tried again, armed with $40 worth of international calling cards. In his journal, Alepho described what happened next.

“Is that you, my son?” his mother asked.

“It’s me, Awer,” said Alepho, using his Dinka name.

“That’s not true,” his mother replied.

“You should believe it, Ma; talk to my friend there.”

Alepho sensed his mother’s confusion.

“She knew when I left I was young, and now I have this deep voice,” said Alepho, who speaks English with an American twang. “I could sense that she had a lot to say, but she couldn’t express it at that moment in time.”

Alepho started to cry. His mother also wept.

They were cut off after five minutes, and he couldn’t get through again.

“When I went to work that Monday,” he said, “I was a different person. My co-workers were surprised. They said they didn’t think I could smile. It’s a blessing.”

It wasn’t until February that Benson managed to reach his mother. He didn’t know what to say but instantly recognized the melody of her voice.

“I was waiting for you to call,” she said. “Alepho called and I was dying to hear your voice.”

Wracked by malaria and typhoid fever, she didn’t have the energy to speak long, but said she was happy to hear her son.

That was all Benson needed to know.

Soon after their brief chat, Benson sent money to a friend to have his mother transferred to Nairobi, Kenya, for treatment.

Benson and Alepho do not have enough money to travel together to Africa.

But thanks to a benefactor, on July 1 Benson will board a plane to Nairobi to reunite with the mother he hasn’t seen since that time when fire poured from the sky.

*

Benson Deng was profiled in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2003: https://www.latimes.com/lostboys


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