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I Have Had to Learn To Live With Peace

How do you make a new life for yourself when you're consumed with the pain of your past?

Survival Skills: I knew how to challenge a hyena, but I had never turned on a light or used a telephone
Jean Bourget for Newsweek
Survival Skills: I knew how to challenge a hyena, but I had never turned on a light or used a telephone
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By Alephonsion Deng
Newsweek

In 1989, when government troops attacked my village in southern Sudan, my peaceful world fell apart. As a boy of 7 I ran barefoot and naked into the night and joined up with streams of other boys trying to escape death or slavery. We crossed a thousand miles of war-ravaged country without hope of sanctuary. Bullets replaced food, medicine, shelter and my loving parents. I lived on wild vegetables, ate mud from Mother Earth and drank urine from my own body.

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We walked for five years, occasionally finding shelter at a refugee camp, only to have to leave again when it was attacked by Sudanese soldiers. Finally we made it to a camp in Kenya, where I lived for nearly a decade on a half cup of cornmeal a day and went to school. After several interviews with workers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I was chosen, along with a few thousand other "lost boys," to go to the United States.

When I arrived here four years ago, I found that the skills I'd learned in order to survive in Sudan were useless. I knew how to catch a rabbit, challenge a hyena or climb a coconut palm, but I had never turned on a light, used a telephone or driven a car.

Luckily, the International Rescue Committee provided us with classes and mentors to teach us basics about computers, job interviews and Western social customs. Within a month I understood how to work most modern conveniences and started my first job as a courtesy clerk and stocker at a Ralph's grocery store in San Diego. Things like mangoes, chard and yams were familiar, but when customers asked about Cheerios, mayonnaise or Ajax, it was as though my years of learning English in the refugee camp were worthless.

Eventually I became acquainted with most things in a modern grocery store, but I still faced a much greater challenge. I'd lived with war, but I still needed to learn to live with peace. At work people joked around and although they made attempts to be friendly, I couldn't understand or connect with much of what they said. It often felt as if their jokes were about me. When one woman said, "Al, you are hot!" I didn't know what it meant and assumed it wasn't good. I began to dread going to work, school or anywhere. Always the outsider who was ready to fight, I existed in a cloud of anger and depression.

It would take two more years for me to understand that these difficulties had little to do with language and cultural differences, and more with being caught up in conflict as a young boy. I could not forget the sound of guns or the cries of women and children dropping next to me like leaves shaken off a tree in a storm. For so many years, the smell and taste of death had spread within me like poison.

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