Young Sudanese men survive war, starvation — and U.S. culture shock

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Photo gallery: The Lost Boys of Sudan
Weeks before high-school graduation, itself something remarkable given the circumstances, Peter Deng is faced with the sort of decision many men dread: round- or the trendier square-toed shoe?

Deng is clothes shopping, fiddling with four-button jackets, eyeing braided, silver-buckled belts, stroking poly-blends in a decidedly urban men's store near Southcenter Mall. Surrounded by hip-hop cool, he searches for dressy black, something that reads: I have arrived.

Deng came to this country four years ago, moving from the mud huts of a Kenyan refugee camp to a town house in Seattle's Sand Point area. That earlier chapter in his story saw him baffled by a washer and dryer, puzzled by students slacking off in high school, bewildered by an item called a chimichanga.

But his story, or at least the tale of the Lost Boy from Sudan, is coming to an end.

In a few weeks he'll graduate from Ingraham High, then head to college. He is working part time, already paying rent and is engaged to be married.

Deng has so adapted to the life of an American high schooler that he's experienced the twin emotions familiar to impending grads everywhere: senioritis and stress.

Weeks ago, he dug into his Great Land backpack only to discover he'd lost a floppy disc containing his 13-page senior project.

Deng sighed and said, "Second-worst day of my life."

1,000-mile trek

The worst day, Deng recalls later, was when soldiers forced him and other orphans from a refugee camp in Ethiopia back to their native Sudan, where a decades-long civil war raged.

Deng stood at the Gilo River. The striped scars on his forehead indicated he was a member of the Dinka tribe, which likely meant he could swim.

Desperate nonswimmers were shoving guns at the swimmers or jumping on their backs for a ride across the Gilo, extra weight that could drown both human ferry and passenger.

Deng dove deep.

"I dove in the river so they can't see me," he said.

Thousands drowned that day. He was 9 years old.

At the time, Deng was already three years into a startling saga of resiliency and courage.

He had been herding cattle when he saw soldiers burn his village. He fled, leaving behind his parents and seven brothers and sisters, who he assumed had been killed.

Deng joined a diaspora of as many as 40,000 barefoot and starving Sudanese children known as the Lost Boys. The children, including some girls, journeyed for four months and 1,000 miles, unaccompanied by adults. They survived on leaves, bugs and sometimes urine. When they finally got to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, their number had been reduced by more than half.

Deng spent 10 years in limbo, in the African bush and in refugee camps, before officials selected him as one of 3,600 young Sudanese to relocate to the United States.

A common birth date

Refugee officials, having no birth certificate to go by, assigned each Lost Boy a Jan. 1 birth date and estimated their ages.

Deng, accordingly, set foot in Washington in December 2000 as a 17-year-old.

He lived briefly with a foster family in Arlington that also took in a Lost Boy named Abraham Dut Jok, whom Deng had known in the Kenyan refugee camp.

The two teens anchored one another as they made their way through an unfamiliar current of new customs, culture and language. When the trauma of their past surfaced, they offered consolation; when "survivor's guilt" emerged, they prodded one another to stay focused and make something of themselves.

Deng and Jok later moved to separate foster homes in Seattle, but both ended up at Ingraham High, a racially diverse campus with about 50 other African students.

But they stood out: They were older; their style of dress was more hand-me-down than homie; their skin color was darker than that of the African-American students.

"Tall, skinny and darkest on the planet," is how some Sudanese describe themselves. The most famous person from Sudan: 7-foot-7-inch former NBA player Manute Bol.

"I was a stranger," Deng recalls. "People didn't know me. I was new."

But word got around about Deng and Jok being Lost Boys, a story increasingly known. And that lessened the stares and the questions and fostered some respect.

They found friendship and counsel from other students, African and American alike, which they then passed on.

When another Sudanese student became angry about being asked "Wassup homie?" Deng explained it was a greeting of friendship, not about being homeless.

The pair mainstreamed out of English-as-a-second-language classes. They assisted in the school library and in the counseling office. They learned about wearing jeans low.

"My friend used to say to me, 'Why don't you pull your pants down?' " Deng says, smiling. "I said, 'That's not my style.' "

Deng and Jok had long ago learned about taking initiative, and the lesson paid off.

"You ask," Deng says. "Everybody is ready to help you."

One morning, Deng, in a plaid long-sleeved shirt and satin "Okinawa Japan" bomber jacket, hangs out with Alieu Kamara, a charismatic 18-year-old in splotchy sagging jeans and baggy NBA jersey. They're in the Ingraham cafeteria.

"She doesn't have a date for prom," Kamara says to Deng as they watch a girl walk by.

"You have to like a girl to go on a date," Deng says.

Kamara corrects him: "After prom, you let her go. I'd be like, 'Peace.' "

Deng went solo to the prom.

Help from their friends

Deng and Jok should have left high school in January, when they turned 21. But Ingraham administrators could not imagine one more interruption in their lives, particularly when they were pulling B-plus averages and so wanted high-school diplomas. They were allowed to stay.

Plus, the pair had astonished Ingraham's then-principal Steve Wilson and assistant principal David Hookfin with their perseverance.

"We knew about the Lost Boys, but one day they came and explained it to us, from their point of view, about the trials and tribulations," Wilson recalled.

"I looked over at David and tears were coming down. Both of us were stunned and shocked and full of a hell of a lot of respect."

Both men and most of the front office at Ingraham became their surrogate parents and confidants. Employees brought them clothing their own teenagers had rejected. Mary Katka, the school secretary, dispensed plenty of hugs.

Proving himself

When he isn't in high school, or sleeping at home, Deng stocks yogurt and organic milk at the View Ridge PCC Natural Market. Not yet knowing how to drive, he commutes on his bicycle, working 27 hours a week, sometimes until 11 p.m. "Can I help you?" he asks customers opening the dairy refrigerator door.

Having aged out of foster care, Deng is making the transition to living on his own, remaining with his former foster mother, Mollie Hughes, but now paying her $225 in monthly rent.

He's also saving money for college.

"I still have doubts I'm not doing OK," he says. "Let me go to college and be a college student. That's where I'll prove to myself I'm doing fine."

He also works to buy 100 cows.

The cows are a Dinka tradition, given by a husband to the family of the girl he plans to marry. Deng met that girl, Yar Dut, at the Kakuma refugee camp — where she waits for him to bring her to the U.S.

"She will make my life easier," he says about the girl whose photo smiles from his cellphone screen. "She will help me with my problems."

Deng sits in his room, a small space dominated by a desk, a stereo and a bunk bed. The bottom bunk is covered with a bedspread embroidered by his fiancée. The room is painted blue; its walls feature a map of southern Sudan, a poster showing the presidents of Africa, a pair of Ingraham graduation tassels, a photo of Deng with two friends in front of a painted backdrop depicting the Space Needle.

If Deng had stayed in Sudan, it's likely he would have been killed in the war. If he had survived, he'd likely be married by now, tending cattle, raising children.

The thought pushes him to go to school, even on little sleep, and to go to work, even when he has studying to do. In prayer he asks God: "Can you help me finish my education so I can go back and help my people?"

In his dreams, he sees himself traveling between homes in Sudan and the United States.

One year ago, with the help of a friend who traveled to Kenya, Deng spoke to his brother and learned that his mother is alive in Sudan. He hasn't seen her in 15 years.

"If I have a chance, I would go and find her and bring her here," he says.

Asked what he would show her first, Deng replies: "I would show her love."

Award winners

The day Deng lost his senior project, the day he looked enormously stressed even though everyone, including his teacher, told him not to panic because he still had time to meet the deadline, Deng winds up at a mall.

Weeks earlier, Deng and Jok received notice they were among 28 students statewide to merit a Governor's Scholarship, given to students who have been in foster care. Each would receive up to $5,000 in college financial aid for four years — putting them one step closer to careers as a social worker and an attorney, respectively — and an invitation to an awards ceremony in Olympia.

Wilson, the former Ingraham principal; Martin Floe, the current principal; plus Hookfin and his wife, guidance counselor Elnora Hookfin, decided to buy the seniors clothes. Elnora Hookfin said new suits would make folks "see them and step aside."

The group meets at the K&G Superstore, where the assistant principal likes to shop.

Elnora Hookfin, having raised three sons, provides a critical but sensible eye.

"You can always be dressed in black," she tells the seniors, who make their way past the racks of Sean John and Poeta Moda to the rows of suits hanging farther back.

Deng slips out of his red knit cap and a blue T-shirt that reads " '04 Fo'Sho' " and into a black suit jacket and pants.

"I feel like I'm somebody now. Somebody who knows a little bit," he says, smoothing out his sleeves, admiring his image in a mirror.

He stretches out his hand.

"Mr. Locke," he rehearses.

Deng takes a meditative walk through the shoe department where he picks out the square-toed shoes.

Jok, in another aisle, opts for a more classically styled pair.

The seniors loop back to a common aisle to appraise each another's selections. And there, in the middle of Footwear, in the universal language called trash-talking, the young men rib each other in Dinka.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Fund-raiser today

Employees at the View Ridge PCC Natural Market are raising funds for co-worker Peter Deng through a yard sale from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. The market is at 6514 40th Ave. N.E. For more information or to make a donation, call John Rothwell at 206-526-7661.