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Sudanese refugee has a home, a mission on Vashon
By SARAH LOW
A journey that began when a family was torn apart by war has a chance to end with a homecoming and reunification, as a Vashon resident and Sudanese refugee is raising money to help return his surviving family members to their home village in South Sudan.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the Vashon Theatre will host a benefit screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Lost Boys of Sudan” as a fundraiser for Peter “Deng Deng” Dut, one of two young refugees featured in the film. Both Dut and his cousin, Jacob Acier — a Lost Boy who became known to many islanders several years ago when he raised money to visit his own family — will be on hand after the screening to facilitate a discussion.
“For people to open their hearts to me, there is something that I can give them,” Dut said in an interview. “I have this experience, these things that happened. … My life hasn’t been pleasant, but I like to share it so that people can learn.”
The 2003 documentary follows Dut and one other Lost Boy from a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, for a full year as they begin life anew in the U.S., finishing their education, looking for work and finding their way in a new culture.
But Dut’s story, like Acier’s, began to unfold about 14 years earlier, when Sudan was embroiled in a brutal civil war. Lasting 22 years, the war and its resulting famine and disease took the lives of more than 2 million people — the largest loss of civilian life since World War II.
When Dut was around 4 years old, a militia attacked his village, and he and his father were separated from his mother and six siblings.
Dut and his father joined about 26,000 other fleeing men and boys on a walk that would take over a month with little food or water, ending at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was on this journey that Dut’s father, like many other men, died, leaving him to survive on his own.
Dut found himself on the run again three years later when his refugee camp was attacked by rebels during an overthrow of the Ethiopian government. Still just 7 to 8 years old, he and thousands of other boys set out into the desert on an unforgiving and deadly path to Kenya. The journey would take a year, during which time almost half of those who began the walk perished, as starvation, dehydration and attacks by wild animals and militia took their toll.
Against these staggering odds, Dut survived.
Roughly 16,000 of these young, orphaned refugees ultimately made it to Kenya, where the United Nations set up a camp and provided food and schooling for the boys for almost a decade. Increased media attention on the plight of the displaced boys in the late 1990s helped bring about a U.S. agreement with the U.N. High Council on Refugees, and after an extensive screening process and many interviews, 3,800 children who would become known as the Lost Boys were approved for relocation to the U.S.
Dut and Acier, who had discovered each other at the camp in Kakuma, were on the list.
About a week before he was to board a plane to the U.S., American filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk arrived at the camp in Kenya, looking for two boys to be the subjects of a documentary. They interviewed 80 of the 100 young men that were scheduled to leave that week, looking for strong and engaging individuals to feature in their documentary.
They found what they were looking for in Dut, a soft-spoken and contemplative young man who the filmmakers would later describe as focused.
In the U.S., Dut lived in Houston then Kansas, where he was able to finish high school. He received a scholarship to Green Mountain College in Vermont, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in sociology and communication.
Since the filming of the documentary, Dut has traveled around the country to raise awareness about the suffering of the Sudanese people and support the film, speaking before many different organizations, including the United Nations and the U.S. Congress.
All the while, Dut, who doesn’t know his exact age but believes he’s now 30 or 31, has assumed that the rest of his family was dead.
“I had no way to know, there was no way to find out. I couldn’t think about it. I had to believe they were gone,” he said. “So I never had any reason to go back.”
That is until 2011, when South Sudan gained its independence and communication opened up. Dut learned that while a couple of his sisters had died, his mother and remaining siblings survived.
“Since I found out they are alive, I have a feeling of needing to reunite. I need to see my family, and I want to help them,” Dut said.
It was this reawakening of his family connection that led Dut to Vashon. Then living in Vermont, he came to the island in April of this year to visit Acier, his cousin, decided to stay and got a job. He has been working for an exterior home cleaning company, though an injury sustained at work currently has him sidelined.
His family still weighs heavily on his mind. During the war, Dut said, women were raped and taken to be slaves in the north and the boys were forced to fight. His family members are now far away from their former home without the means to return.
“I am the middle of all of the children, but now I am considered the head of the family. I need to help them however I can,” he said.
Dut is now working to raise $15,000 to $20,000 to travel to Sudan and move his displaced family members back to their home village in South Sudan. He says that he will go regardless of what he raises, but he’s unsure how much he will be able to accomplish there without help from others.
The trip is especially urgent, Dut said, as his mother is ill.
“I can’t think about bringing her here, and she wants to go home,” he said. “I haven’t asked for anything since I came to America, but I need help now to try to bring my family back together. What I have to give back is my experience.”
He feels that the documentary is the best way to do that, even though he says he often feels embarrassed about being featured in the film.
“It was hard to be followed around all the time,” he said with a smile. “The other boys got to make mistakes without being in the spotlight, but mine are all on the screen.”
But he feels strongly that his experiences can help others and educate people about Sudan and what its people have been through.
“We have many ways to fight,” he said. “I am not fighting with a gun, but fighting with information and education. If I can do that, why shouldn’t I?”
Hoping to leave by the new year, Dut plans on returning to Vashon, where he shares a home with Acier.
“I appreciate everything I have here and everyone around me. I just need to see my family back together, safe and home where they belong, no matter what else I do from here.”
See ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’
Peter Dut and Jacob Acier will host a screening of “Lost Boys of Sudan” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Vashon Theatre. They will introduce the film; then both men will facilitate discussion afterward. Cost is by suggested donation of $5 to $10, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds.