When 23-year-old Jacob Deng returned to Duk Padiet, the village in South Sudan where he was born, his older sister Abiol ran from him screaming. Eighteen years earlier, in 1987, the Sudanese government attacked and burned down his village. Jacob, the only male left in his family, escaped, but his family presumed him dead. Now, nearly two decades later, Abiol was sure she was seeing her baby brother’s ghost. Members of the village collected her and held her up as Jacob approached her slowly, tentatively. Her cries turned into high-pitched wails. Finally, she touched him. Then clung to him, sobbing “Jacob! Is that you? Is that you?!”
This scene is part of a documentary about Jacob Deng—a refugee from Sudan now living Halifax—and his first return home. It is crushing to watch. Abiol’s cries are the distillation and release of decades of suffering and loss, pain and hardship endured by the villagers Duk Padiet. For the past two years, Jacob and the charitable organization he founded—Wadeng Wings of Hope—have worked to improve the lives of the people of South Sudan in the hopes that the need for these kinds of painful reunions becomes a thing of the past.
After fleeing his village, Jacob walked for three months to get to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Soon after, the Ethiopian government was overthrown and together with thousands of other young survivors—called the Lost Boys of Sudan—Jacob set out on foot for Kenya, a trip that took five months. He lived in the refugee camps there for twelve years. In March 2003, Jacob and his wife Jenty were accepted into Canada and set up their home in Halifax. Since then, Jacob has found work, graduated from a one-year college program, had two children and is now in his first year of a business degree at Acadia University. All throughout, Wadeng Wings of Hope has remained a priority. “The war can end, but those things, there’s so much wounded inside,” he says in a phone interview, “and to heal them you better give people education so they think before they act.”
The ultimate goal of Wadeng Wings of Hope is to build a school in the village of Duk Padiet, a village of about 12,000. Right now, the “school” in Duk Padiet is the shade of a tree where children gather, sitting on logs or old paint cans and where volunteers teach basic literacy—the ABC’s, a little math and a little science—“Basically keeping the kids occupied until the school can be built,” says Jacob.
Wadeng Wings of Hope has also just wrapped up its second Goat Campaign, where the organization raises funds to purchase goats for the villagers. A school is the long-term goal, but first, Jacob says, people must have the necessities of life, and goats can help.
“A goat can birth twice in a year, and with a kid, sometimes, two kids, three kids and the goat will have milk. The offspring can multiply quickly and they can sell them for shoes, something they can use.”
In 2005, after the first year of the program, Jacob returned to Duk Padiet and bought with him 120 goats to distribute to the village’s poorest residents. They were stunned by the gesture.
“They think only a white person can bring help. It was a big question in their mind
—‘how how did he do it?’ You can see the happiness on their face, it’s like unbelievable for them.”
The 2006/2007 campaign raised $6,000, enough for 150 goats. Jacob will not personally deliver the goats this year—he has a connection in Kenya who will purchase and deliver the animals to the Sudan.
The school fund is growing, though slowly. The organization estimates it will need between $30,000 and $40,000 to build the school. So far, they’ve raised about $13,000. Board members say they’ll turn to grant writing while continuing to seek individual donations. Regardless of how long it takes, Jacob is determined to turn the horror of his childhood into positive change for his people.
“It’s like a healing process to the life that I went through. I love my family, and I never had a chance to enjoy them. I’ll never see my mom or my brothers. I want to do something that will help the majority and continue to help be part of the solution. That’s what drives me every day and night.”