After fleeing a brutal civil war in Africa at the age of 7, Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," eventually made his way to the United States, where he could have chosen to resettle. Instead, he decided to return to South Sudan, now an independent republic, to help rebuild his war-torn country.
"I intended that I would not blend into the American society and ignore what was going on in my country," Deng told a packed-house Monday evening at the Community School theater in Sun Valley. "We decided one of the best ways to help South Sudan was to reinvest in the education of our children."
Head of School David Holmes introduced Deng as "a quiet revolutionary trying to make changes in his Sudan."
"Against all odds, Valentino is with us tonight," Holmes said.
Many of the people of South Sudan were not so fortunate in a civil war that lasted 22 years between the Sudanese government forces of the north and tribal rebels of the south. Between 1983 and 2005, when a peace agreement was reached, an estimated 2.5 million South Sudanese people died from war, starvation or disease and another 4 million were displaced.
The Republic of South Sudan gained full independence earlier this year. The population was estimated in 2008 at 8.2 million.
Deng told the gathering Monday night that the war found him in 1988, after tribal rebels began attacking rival villages.
"I thought we would have nothing to do with it," he said. "I was a very young child, I had never gone anywhere beyond my village. I was a child in the middle of a conflict."
Deng, separated from his family, became part of a refugee stream that fled, eventually stopping at a refuge camp in Ethiopia and later settling in another camp in Kenya.
He described scenes of seeing people burned to death in their homes, watching a pregnant woman mowed down by machine gunfire, and seeing people starve to death and dying because of lack of clean water.
"I witnessed people crying for help, and there was nothing I could do to help," he said.
In Kenya, Deng began his education, learning to read and write.
"We didn't have pens or pencils; we had to write in the dirt," he said.
In 2001, Deng was one of 3,800 "Lost Boys of Sudan," the name given to them by aid workers in refugee camps, who were allowed to resettle in the United States. Deng was brought to Atlanta, where he worked, finished a high school education and started college.
He began speaking at local high schools but had the desire to spread his story farther. In 2003, through the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta, he was put in contact with author Dave Eggers, who collaborated with Deng for three years before publishing the book "What is the What," in 2006.
Deng explains in the book preface that Eggers wrote the book as a novel because Deng could not recall precise details of conversations and events that occurred when he was a child.
Nonetheless, Deng wrote "that all the major events in the book are true. The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages."
Deng, who still lives in Atlanta, has made many return trips to his native country to help establish a new educational system. He is the founder of The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. Through its efforts, volunteers and villagers at his hometown of Marial Bai built a school with 350 students, including about 100 girls.
He explained Monday that the designer was an excellent builder, but a man who couldn't read or write and "drew his designs on the ground." Hundreds of villagers helped build the school, often carrying in loads of bricks on their backs.
With only limited electricity because of the difficulty of getting diesel, Deng said students study at night by torchlight.
Tensions still exist with the government of North Sudan, leading to embargoes and shortages of needed commodities.
Deng's presentation Monday was not without its light moments. He explained that when he settled in Atlanta, it was the first time he had ever had kitchen appliances.
"I could not figure out what to put in the refrigerator," he said. "Some of my friends would put beans in the refrigerator."
Terry Smith: email@example.com