HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS

Help­ing oth­ers re­build after a child­hood of war-torn hell

Sunday Territorian - - FRONTIER - * To find out more in­for­ma­tion or to do­nate to iHOPE, visit ihope.org.au/.

GROW­ING up as a young child in war-torn South Su­dan, Deng Bul never imag­ined he would one day be lead­ing a happy and peace­ful life in Dar­win.

Such an idea seemed like a dis­tant, im­pos­si­ble dream.

In 1987, when he was just nine years old, Mr Deng — also known as John Deng — was sep­a­rated from his par­ents in South Su­dan and forced to leave the country to es­cape the war with thousands of other chil­dren his age.

“Life in South Su­dan was just hor­ri­ble — I would see peo­ple be­ing mer­ci­lessly killed, burned in their huts, women be­ing gang-raped and chil­dren be­ing mu­ti­lated,” Mr Deng said.

“This is not a bad Hol­ly­wood movie or a bad dream, this is real, and it is happening to­day in South Su­dan where al­most a third of the pop­u­la­tion are now or­phans and wid­ows. It was my country.”

Along with myr­iad other dis­placed and for­got­ten chil­dren search­ing for a peace­ful place to call home, Mr Deng trekked for days through thick jun­gle un­til he fi­nally reached Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia was far more beau­ti­ful than South Su­dan and it was a peace­ful country when I first went there,” Mr Deng said.

“Un­for­tu­nately a civil war broke out, and in 1991, we fled Ethiopia, trekked back to South Su­dan and across the bor­der, set­tling in Kakuma refugee camp in north­east­ern Kenya in 1992.”

Mr Deng said many peo­ple mi­grated to Kenya to es­cape the war and seek safety in refugee camps.

“The two ma­jor tribes in South Su­dan are the Dinka, that’s where I come from, and the Nuer. When your tribe is con­stantly be­ing tar­geted, it’s im­pos­si­ble to feel se­cure,” he said.

De­spite find­ing pro­tec­tion in the refugee camp, Mr Deng yearned for his par­ents and des­per­ately wanted to find his fam­ily again.

“In 1993 I made yet an­other dan­ger­ous jour­ney back to South Su­dan in an at­tempt to trace my fam­ily,” he ex­plained.

“Instead, I was captured and re­cruited into the Su­dan Lib­er­a­tion Army at age 13.”

Mr Deng spent six years serv­ing in the army, work­ing with re­lief agen­cies such as the Red Cross, Medair and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Chris­tian Re­source Or­gan­i­sa­tion Serv­ing Su­dan.

“I was dev­as­tated. As I badly wanted to find my par­ents, what could I do (while) in the army? I had no power,” he re­calls.

Mr Deng was lucky enough to meet Doris Lem­pe­nauer, a Medair worker, and through trust, friend­ship and com­pas­sion formed over the years, she paid for him to fin­ish his pri­mary and sec­ondary stud­ies in Kenya after he left the army.

Life was much kinder to Mr Deng after the year 2000; he was able to be re­united with fam­ily, and in 2004, he mi­grated to Australia.

“Had I not met Doris, I could not pre­dict what my life would have been like, or even if I would still be alive to­day,” Mr Deng said.

“What I do know with cer­tainty is that I am a tes­ti­mony to her gen­eros­ity and kind­ness.”

NOW re­sid­ing in Dar­win with his wife Riak Deng and their four chil­dren, Mr Deng hopes his story res­onates with im­mi­grants in Australia and that his jour­ney in­spires those un­der­go­ing a pe­riod of hard­ship to never give up.

In a bid to re­pay the kind­ness shown to­wards him when he was un­der­go­ing his time of great un­cer­tainty, and to help those who con­tinue to suf­fer in South Su­dan, Mr Deng and a small group of fam­ily and friends have founded a char­ity called the ‘in­te­grated Help and Op­por­tu­ni­ties for Peace­ful Ex­is­tence’.

“I find it in­de­fen­si­ble that these wid­ows and or­phans must con­tinue to strug­gle to sur­vive, des­per­ate for peace, but to no avail,” Mr Deng said.

“The iHOPE ini­tia­tive is a com­bi­na­tion of projects pur­posely designed to em­power or­phans, wid­ows and dis­abled back home in South Su­dan.”

Mr Deng said three or­phans had al­ready been spon­sored this year, and 10 more would be catered for in 2018, funds per­mit­ting.

“We are tak­ing on this ini­tia­tive be­cause with im­proved ed­u­ca­tion, vo­ca­tional train­ing and other skills and ex­pe­ri­ence, wid­ows and or­phans can re­spond to their day-to-day prob­lems in a more ma­ture and re­spon­si­ble man­ner,” he said.

“The aim is to re­store hope to the hopeless while cre­at­ing a bet­ter ev­ery­day life for fi­nan­cially dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies across South Su­dan.”

Mr Deng said the other rea­son behind found­ing iHOPE was to im­prove liv­ing stan­dards for fi­nan­cially dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple back in Africa, with­out hav­ing to drain the wal­lets of their fam­ily mem­bers set­tled in Australia

“Cul­tur­ally, the head of the

fam­ily, the hus­band and wife, are obliged to treat all mem­bers of their ex­tended fam­ily equally, and fail­ing to do so brings shame upon the whole fam­ily,” he ex­plained.

“Fam­ily mem­bers in South Su­dan are look­ing to us in Australia for as­sis­tance, and we must not fail to re­spond to their needs.

“The South Su­danese com­mu­nity here is al­ready in­vest­ing a great part of their present in­come to en­sure that their rel­a­tives over­seas can at­tend school, pay their rent and af­ford med­i­cal care, and this sac­ri­fice fre­quently causes fi­nan­cial hard­ship here in Australia.”

Mr Deng and his fam­ily have re­ceived some sup­port from Territorians but are call­ing upon the wider com­mu­nity to get behind iHOPE.

“By giv­ing through ser­vice or do­na­tion to iHOPE you are help­ing to re­store hope to the poor­est of the poor,” he said.

Mr Deng and his fam­ily at­tend C3 Church Dar­win and said they had been em­braced and sup­ported by the en­tire church com­mu­nity since they started going to ser­vices in 2014.

C3 Church Dar­win pas­tor Lars Halvorsen said he was com­pletely blown away when he found out about Mr Deng’s iHOPE ini­tia­tive.

“It’s easy to see the heart behind it all when you talk to Mr Deng about iHOPE,” he said.

“When he men­tioned he had started a char­ity I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect, but I must say I have been very im­pressed, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the hor­rific life he’s come from.

“Mr Deng and his fam­ily have in­spired me, and I think any­one who does what they’re do­ing for those strug­gling over­seas should be en­cour­aged, sup­ported and cham­pi­oned.”

Mul­ti­cul­tural Coun­cil of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory pro­gram man­ager Ron Mitchell has known Mr Deng and his fam­ily for around two years, and be­lieves iHOPE is a great idea — so much so, he’s help­ing him spread the word at a ma­jor con­fer­ence.

“Mr Deng will be speak­ing about iHOPE at our Na­tional Mul­ti­cul­tural Con­fer­ence to be held in Dar­win in Oc­to­ber, which is a great op­por­tu­nity for him,” he said.

“As well as pro­mot­ing peace and self-re­liance in South Su­dan through iHOPE, Mr Deng is very much about fit­ting in with the Aus­tralian cul­ture and bring­ing out the best in ev­ery­one.”

De­spite liv­ing in sev­eral lo­ca­tions across Queens­land and Vic­to­ria since ar­riv­ing in Australia around 13 years ago, Mr Deng said he was hap­pi­est liv­ing in the Top End with his fam­ily.

“We have set­tled in Dar­win and the whole North­ern Ter­ri­tory is our home now — we can’t wait to raise our fam­ily here in this beau­ti­ful part of the world,” he said.

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