HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS
Helping others rebuild after a childhood of war-torn hell
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.