A ‘Lost Boy’ no longer

Nights work­ing at Lowe’s, days run­ning for pres­i­dent of South Su­dan

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA VOZZELLA

rich­mond — Just min­utes into the night shift at Lowe’s, beads of sweat sparkle on Bol Gai Deng’s fore­head.

He’s at the back of the sub­ur­ban Rich­mond store, un­load­ing a 54-foot truck crammed with leaf blow­ers and bar­be­cue grills, Drano and pitch­forks — tough work that drives off most in a mat­ter of weeks or months. Deng has stuck with it for six years be­cause he likes hav­ing his days free for his other gig: run­ning for pres­i­dent of South Su­dan.

Vir­ginia prides it­self on be­ing the “mother” of pres­i­dents. Eight U.S. heads of state were born there, more than in any other state. That’s not count­ing Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the Peters­burg bar­ber who be­came the first elected pres­i­dent of Liberia in 1847.

With Deng — an adopted son of Vir­ginia who ar­rived as a Su­danese refugee two decades ago, just ahead of a wave known as the “Lost Boys” of Su­dan — the com­mon­wealth might some­day claim one more.

“Africa does not want rulers. It wants lead­ers,” said Deng, a U.S. cit­i­zen in his late 30s who does not know his pre­cise age. “I’m a leader be­cause I trained in Amer­ica.”

Deng pur­sues the pres­i­dency of the world’s new­est and per­haps most des­per­ate coun­try with in­fec­tious pas­sion and an un­likely band of vol­un­teers.

A for­mer Rich­mond TV an­chor who has never been to Africa acts as an ad­viser. A grass-roots Repub­li­can ac­tivist, more prac­ticed in Vir­ginia leg­isla­tive races than in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, serves as po­lit­i­cal strate­gist and oc­ca­sional stylist, pick­ing up a woolen Costco over­coat for Deng ahead of a meet­ing at the United Na­tions in De­cem­ber.

A month be­fore that, Deng pressed State Depart­ment of­fi­cials to call for elec­tions in his war-rav­aged home­land — some­thing the cow­boy-hat­ted Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir has re­fused to do.

A fel­low refugee who ad­vises Deng on se­cu­rity deemed a cam­paign trip to their home­land too risky. So in May, Deng trav­eled in­stead to Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, where he promised crowds of dis­placed South Su­danese that he would usher in an era of democ­racy and hon­esty.

For the most part, Deng makes his bid from Vir­ginia, where he still lives with the fam­ily who took him in. His $15 hourly wage is enough to pay his bills and bankroll a shoe­string cam­paign that re­lies largely on so­cial me­dia and free help from An­drea McDaniel, a long­time NBC12 an­chor who met Deng at a char­ity event, and Don Blake, pres­i­dent of the Vir­ginia Chris­tian Al­liance, who en­coun­tered Deng through church.

Be­yond the Lowe’s load­ing dock, where co-work­ers have taken to call­ing him “Mr. Pres­i­dent,” Deng has his share of be­liev­ers. They span the U.S. po­lit­i­cal spectrum de­spite the coun­try’s deeply po­lar­ized im­mi­gra­tion pol­i­tics.

Those on the right tout Deng — a Chris­tian kid­napped as a young boy by the mu­jahideen and forced into slav­ery — as val­i­da­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump’s “Mus­lim ban” and other hard­line stances on im­mi­gra­tion. To the left, he’s proof that refugees can flour­ish and of­fer hope to their home­lands if only Amer­ica would wel­come them.

Deng’s cam­paign op­er­ates out of Blake’s of­fices at the Vir­ginia Chris­tian Al­liance, which leads bat­tles against abor­tion and gay rights in the state Capi­tol. Hun­dreds of African Amer­i­can Bap­tists, gath­ered at a Rich­mond con­ven­tion in June, gave Deng a stand­ing ova­tion, com­par­ing him sym­pa­thet­i­cally to chil­dren flee­ing Cen­tral Amer­ica to­day.

“If it was U.S. pol­i­tics, he would win every de­bate be­cause he would sim­ply tell his story,” said Shawn Ut­sey, a Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor and in­terim chair­man of the school’s depart­ment of African Amer­i­can stud­ies.

Deng earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from VCU and was the first stu­dent to sign up for the home­land se­cu­rity ma­jor the school cre­ated af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. He had hoped to get a job with the FBI or Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, but his com­mand of writ­ten English was too lim­ited.

On a cam­pus with eight or nine Su­danese refugees, Deng stood out be­cause he was al­ways or­ga­niz­ing some­thing, Ut­sey said. Deng put to­gether a pro­gram to help lo­cal African im­mi­grants im­prove their English, led ef­forts to build a school and de­liver medicine to South Su­dan, and staged a two-day con­fer­ence on Su­dan that drew diplo­mats and schol­ars from Wash­ing­ton and else­where.

“Of all the Lost Boys, I’ve not heard any of them say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing back to make a dif­fer­ence,’ ” Ut­sey said. “He came here, achieved some suc­cess, and the whole time he did that, he was wor­ried about his peo­ple in South Su­dan and how he would im­prove their lives.”

While Deng is well known among Rich­mond’s South Su­danese com­mu­nity, it’s not clear that he has a broad fol­low­ing across the di­as­pora. His cam­paign Face­book page has 3,600 likes. His name did not ring a bell with a few prom­i­nent South Su­danese ex­pats reached out­side the United States, in­clud­ing Peter Biar Ajak, a Lost Boy who is now a World Bank econ­o­mist work­ing to­ward his doc­tor­ate in Cam­bridge, Eng­land, and Brian Adeba in Canada.

“I bet as soon as a peace deal is fi­nal­ized, peo­ple will come out of the wood­work [to run],” said Adeba, a deputy direc­tor at the Enough Project, which seeks to end geno­cide and crimes against hu­man­ity.

What­ever his po­lit­i­cal prospects, Deng has been given time and at­ten­tion from gov­ern­ment ex­perts in the United States. He has met sev­eral times with Wil­liam H. Leighty, for­mer chief of staff to Demo­cratic Vir­ginia gover­nors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who has trained gov­ern­ment lead­ers in coun­tries as dif­fer­ent as Scot­land and Nige­ria.

Some of Leighty’s ad­vice to Deng was univer­sal, such as the need to build a cab­i­net that “re­flects all peo­ple, not just the peo­ple who sup­port you,” Leighty said. And some of it was spe­cific to Deng’s coun­try — spun off from Su­dan proper in 2011 and soon mired in a civil war that has led to the deaths of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple — which lacks the most ba­sic in­fras­truc­ture for gov­ern­ing or mod­ern life, such as a func­tion­ing fi­nan­cial sys­tem.

The east-cen­tral African na­tion, which started out with a pop­u­la­tion of 12 mil­lion, has 2.5 mil­lion cit­i­zens liv­ing in camps in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, 2 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed and 7 mil­lion in need of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, ac­cord­ing to State Depart­ment fig­ures.

Deng was about 7 years old when raiders from Su­dan’s Mus­lim north swept into his Dinka vil­lage in the south, killing men, rap­ing women and kid­nap­ping him and hun­dreds of other boys and girls. En­slaved for years, he man­aged to es­cape while tend­ing cat­tle by hop­ping on a pass­ing train. He made his way to refugee camps in Khar­toum and Cairo. In 1999, when he was about 17, he reached sub­ur­ban Rich­mond, where a church had of­fered to re­set­tle him and three fel­low Su­danese teens.

It’s hard to square that hor­rific past with the sunny, 6-foot-4 string bean who strides through Lowe’s like a small-town mayor in a Fourth of July pa­rade. He has friends all over the store, from fel­low un­load­ers in back to cus­tomer ser­vice reps out front.

Mem­bers of the un­load­ing crew take turns go­ing in­side the truck, rolling the con­tents down a con­veyor belt for the oth­ers to sort and move to store shelves. It gets ter­ri­bly hot in the truck in sum­mer. When Deng’s not in­side, he’s al­ways check­ing on the guy who is, said Kim Gray, 27, one of three men help­ing Deng empty a truck one week­night last month.

“He cares for peo­ple a lot,” Gray said. “He has a kind heart, very kind heart.”

Deng’s life now is a mind-bog­gling leap from the vil­lage of his youth, which had no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter, much less lawns and pa­tio sets.

His home was a grass hut with a dirt floor and a loft for sleep­ing, in case lions crept in at night. His fam­ily grew wheat and okra, raised dairy cows and hunted game in the bush with spears.

He was one of “about 13” chil­dren. (It’s re­garded as a “curse” to count them, he said.) His par­ents died of in­juries sus­tained in raids, but sev­eral sis­ters and at least one brother are alive in South Su­dan and else­where. (He is vague about their where­abouts out of fear for their se­cu­rity.)

Deng alone made it to the United States, where even to­day he eats just one meal a day, as he did as a child. Ini­tially housed in a Hen­rico County apart­ment with the three other refugees, he knew lit­tle English and strug­gled at first.

“He bought a car from one of these peo­ple who charged him 29 per­cent in­ter­est when he was work­ing a min­i­mum-wage job,” said Jill Wood, the woman Deng re­gards as his “Amer­i­can mom.” She calls him by the Chris­tian name he was given at birth, Wil­liam.

Wood’s hus­band, Frank, had per­suaded fel­low mem­bers of St. Bartholomew’s Epis­co­pal Church to spon­sor the refugees. Empty-nester pro­fes­sion­als with a four-bed­room house, the Woods even­tu­ally in­vited Deng to live with them. That was in 2001. He is still there.

The cou­ple helped him get through VCU. They also learned that their lib­eral pol­i­tics did not match those of their house­guest, who came home one day with a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on his car.

“I have only yelled at him one time, and that was about Trump,” Jill Wood said.

Po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences aside, Deng be­came a beloved mem­ber of the fam­ily. The cou­ple’s grand­chil­dren call him “Un­cle Wil­liam.” Frank suf­fered a fall, a stroke and an­other fall in the years be­fore he died, and it was Deng who slept by his side — Frank on a hos­pi­tal bed in the liv­ing room, Deng on a mat­tress on the floor.

Wood learned that Deng was run­ning for pres­i­dent in church, when their priest an­nounced that he’d come to him, seek­ing the con­gre­ga­tion’s bless­ing. “First I’ve heard of it,” she told fel­low choir mem­bers.

“Wil­liam, I’m just go­ing to tell you one thing: You can­not run for pres­i­dent of South Su­dan un­til you clean up your room,” she told him later.

More daunt­ing ob­sta­cles stand in his way. Like the fact that Kiir shows no de­sire to give up power. That the coun­try is racked by civil war and lacks even the most ba­sic tools for run­ning an elec­tion. Many ex­perts agree that the first step is to re­place the cur­rent gov­ern­ment — one Adeba calls a “vi­o­lent klep­toc­racy” — and es­tab­lish an in­terim one that is will­ing and able to host fair elec­tions.

Deng sees a clear path for­ward from his perch on the liv­ing room Bar­caLounger, the legs of his khakis inch­ing up just enough to re­veal scars from the chains he wore in slav­ery. He thinks Trump could get the ball rolling by nudg­ing Kiir out, per­haps paving the way for a Pres­i­dent Deng.

“I want him to tweet, just tweet, ‘Step down,’ ” he said, smil­ing broadly. “It’s sim­ple.”

“If it was U.S. pol­i­tics, he would win every de­bate be­cause he would sim­ply tell his story.” Shawn Ut­sey, a Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor and in­terim chair­man of the school’s depart­ment of African Amer­i­can stud­ies

PHOTOS BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bol Gai Deng, at work in sub­ur­ban Rich­mond, top, and in his bed­room at the home of the Amer­i­can fam­ily who took him in when he was about 17. Deng was en­slaved dur­ing the war in Su­dan when he was about 7. “Africa does not want rulers. It wants lead­ers,” he says.

PHOTOS BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: At home in Rich­mond, Jill Wood ad­justs Bol Gai Deng’s tie. Deng re­gards her as his “Amer­i­can mom.” He pur­sues the pres­i­dency of the world’s new­est and per­haps most des­per­ate coun­try with in­fec­tious pas­sion and an un­likely band of vol­un­teers. ABOVE: His $15 hourly wage at Lowe’s is enough to pay his bills and bankroll a shoe­string cam­paign that re­lies largely on so­cial me­dia and free help from a for­mer lo­cal TV an­chor and the head of the Vir­ginia Chris­tian Al­liance. RIGHT: Deng ad­dresses Vir­ginia’s Bap­tist Gen­eral Con­ven­tion.

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