Nineteen-year-old refugee Alephonsion Deng, from war-ravaged Sudan, had great expectations when he arrived in America three weeks before two planes crashed into the World Trade Towers. Money, he’d been told, was given to you in pillows. Machines did all the work. Education was free.
Suburban mom Judy Bernstein had her own assumptions. The teenaged “Lost Boys of Sudan”who’d traveled barefoot and starving for a thousand milesneeded a little mothering and a change of scenery: a trip to the zoo, perhaps, or maybe the beach.
Partnered through a mentoring program in San Diego, these two individuals from opposite sides of the world began an eye-opening journey that radically altered each other’s vision and life.
Disturbed in Their Nests recounts the first year of this heartwarming partnership; the initial misunderstandings, the growing trust, and, ultimately, their lasting friendship. Their contrasting points of view provide of-the-moment insight into what refugees face when torn from their own cultures and thrust into entirely foreign ones.
Alepho struggles to understand the fast-paced, supersized way of life in America. He lands a job, but later is viciously beaten. Will he ever escape violence and hatred?
Judy faces her own struggles: Alepho and his fellow refugees need jobs, education, housing, and health care. Why does she feel so compelled and how much support should she provide?
The migrant crises in the Middle East, Central America, Europe, and Africa have put refugees in the headlines. Countless human tragedies are reduced to mere numbers. Personal stories such as Alepho’s add a face to the news and lead to greater understanding of the strangers among us. Readers experience Alepho’s discomfort, fears, and triumphs in a way that a newscast can’t convey. This timely and inspiring personal account will make readers laugh, cry, and examine their own place in the world.
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About the Author
Alephonsion Deng was relocated from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to the United States as part of the UNHCR refugee resettlement program in 2001. He now lives in San Diego and shares his extraordinary story of survival and his belief that you cannot change what happened to you but you can create your own future.
Judy A. Bernstein lives in San Diego and devotes her time to speaking at schools, colleges, and organizations regarding tolerance and refugee issues. She continues to mentor refugees and is working on her next book.
Read an Excerpt
In 2001, nothing was more important to me than the board beneath the big acacia tree in the middle of Kakuma Refugee Camp. There, they posted the list of lucky boys who would leave the camp for a new life in America.
Since the program began a year earlier, three thousand Lost Boys of Sudan, as the United Nations named us, had already boarded a plane bound for the land of opportunity. My turn had not yet come.
Now it was August. Another week, another list, another chance.
I made my way down Kakuma Road, past row after row of mud huts, light bouncing off their flattened-oilcan roofs. Heat seared my calloused feet. Boys emerged from their huts, some holding hands, all walking in that determined way, eager to know their fates at the board.
There was no opportunity in Kakuma camp. No future. Everyone wanted to leave. But war still raged back in Sudan, and other countries wouldn't have us. The resettlement program to America was our only hope.
There'd been some weeks when no list went up on the board under the tree, no plane landed on the dirt strip outside camp, and no one left for their new life. When that happened, I focused on school because I knew the resettlement program could end before my chance came. I'd also heard that some boys' files had been stolen and sold, and I worried that at any time my file could go missing too. But once I had an education, no one could take that away.
It was possible I'd never be able to leave Kakuma camp. Life had taught me to keep my expectations calm because when dreams did not come true, it was disappointing. Disappointment could turn to sadness, and sadness made everything seem futile. It could even endanger lives, for young men with nothing to hope for and nothing to lose can be dangerous indeed.
At the sound of footsteps, I turned and looked back over my shoulder. Benson, my brother, caught up to me on the road. His turn had not yet come either.
"Who will stand in the ration line tomorrow?" he asked in Dinka, our native language.
We took turns getting up at four in the morning and standing in line all day. "I will," I said. "Because if my name is on the board, I will be gone."
He laughed. A nervous laugh. "Do you think if your name is there today, you will be in America tomorrow?"
I smiled. We joked because that was our way of coping with our situation, but my stomach burned with hunger. Every two weeks all the refugees lined up in the scorching sun for the dried corn distribution. The corn still had to be ground, so a percentage of our ration was needed to pay the grinder. Then we all collected firewood; the corn required hours of cooking to be edible. Once a day, in the afternoon, my brother and I ate together from a large pot. We'd been surviving on that one meal we called asida for nine years, always making sure that we didn't eat too much any one day or we wouldn't have enough to last until the next ration day. We always ran out though. We called those foodless days black days.
Today was a black day. But not even the mud we collected from the stream would have settled my stomach. Not even asida — nothing would help until I saw my name on the board.
We walked along the road, each lost in his thoughts. Would this be our day? Would we be together, or separated for years again, maybe this time forever? We didn't share words the rest of our way to the destiny tree.
* * *
When I was five, war had separated Benson from me. That night, when our village was attacked, my mother shook me awake. "Alepho, Alepho, wake up!" I heard thunder and smelled smoke. "Go with Diing now!"
My eldest brother grabbed my hand and dragged me through the door. Outside, thunder roared and lit the sky at the same time. What was this?
Men on horseback with flaming torches raced through our village. Sharp pops whistled and split the air. People fell.
"Run!" Diing pulled me through the screams and panic. Sheep and goats nearly trampled us. We dodged between people, men on horseback, burning huts, and made our way to the elephant grass outside the village.
"Get down," Diing said.
We crouched. My heart battered my chest. "Is this the danger?" My father had warned me that if danger came I must run.
"Yes," Diing said and gripped my hand tighter.
With each explosion, the black sky lit up like day. Where was our mother, our father, and the rest of our family? Sobs shook my body. "I want to go home."
"We can't. It's not safe."
"What about Benson?" He was at my oldest sister's house in another village two hours' walk away.
"I don't know."
I couldn't see our village to understand what was happening. I reached to part the grass. Diing grabbed my hand back and wouldn't let go. "Stay down. They will see us." We remained like that, huddled in the stalks. My body didn't stop shaking all night.
Hours later, a dull orange lit the horizon. The explosions and screaming had stopped.
"Diing," I said, "it's quiet. Can we go home now?"
We waited until the sun came up, then crawled from the bush.
In the distance, smoke sat over the area where our village lay. The silence put fear in me. Was my family still alive?
As we crept closer, our eyes wide for danger, I heard crying. We came to a hut. Its roof, now black burned grass, had fallen inside. Outside, a family clung to each other huddled over a child. I couldn't look at his injured leg.
I pulled from Diing's grasp and ran past other huts, some burned, some still with their roofs.
Ours came into view. The roof was there. Our mother was in front with my baby brother at her breast. My father beside her. They'd survived the attack. They were alive.
I'd never been so happy in my life. I fell into their arms. Tears poured down our cheeks.
We remained there together the whole day, weeping, with smoke and ash all around us. My father went off to help others, but came back often to check on us.
Later, as the sun sank and the light was nearly gone, a figure stumbled out of the darkness. My oldest sister. Her mouth moved but no sound came out. My father rushed to meet her, and she collapsed into his arms.
"Oh, Ma! Da!" she cried. "We can't find Benson."
* * *
Benson had been seven when he'd disappeared that day.
Now, fourteen years later, we were in Kakuma camp, back together, but for how long?
We reached the shade of the old acacia. A large crowd of Lost Boys were gathered. The representative from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) pushed his way through the crowd to the board. His stapler banged up a list of names. The boys jostled for position and chattered like weaver birds.
"You go," I told Benson. As my older brother, he should know his fate first.
Benson shoved his way into the crowd. Boys who had gotten to the list first slumped away in disappointment. With twelve thousand boys still waiting to go and less than a hundred each week on the list, hope was small for all of us.
Benson made it to the board. His finger moved down the page, pausing to read each line. It stopped at the bottom and Benson leaned in close, holding his finger on a name.
I pushed through the others. Benson turned to me and smiled. I leaned over a fellow Lost Boy. There, below Benson's finger: Deng, Benson Athiin. Just as we had imagined it for so long.
But where was my name? It wasn't on the list.
"Wait," Benson said, "another page is coming."
I closed my eyes and imagined my name on that white sheet. I willed it to be there. I couldn't lose my brother again.
Boys pushed and shoved to see if their names were on the list. I held my ground beside Benson. I wouldn't leave until all the pages had been posted.
The stapler tacked up another page. My turn to lean in. First name at the top: Deng, Alephonsion Awer.
Our chance had arrived.
"San Diego," Benson said. "Where is that?"
"I don't know." What I did know was that it was in America, and we were both going. My brother and I would be together. That was all that mattered.CHAPTER 2
THE BIG BIRD
Since the resettlement of the Lost Boys had begun, rumors about American life had flown around Kakuma camp. No one had been there but everyone was an expert. America was the land of the free: free from starvation and thirst, free to drive a car, free to do whatever you wanted.
News spread that I would soon be leaving. People offered advice. A friend came to my hut and said, "To walk barefoot in America is embarrassing." He gave me his black shoes. They were old and raggedy and felt strange on my feet, but I was proud and thankful to have my first pair.
Elders told me, "Come back and help your country."
Others cautioned, "Stay away from women."
One man gave me important information. He said, "If you meet a really rich sponsor, you get three pillows that hold inside the money for you to live and go to school. If you meet a sponsor who is not that rich, you get one pillow. The poorest man in America is like the richest in Africa. The poor ones give you only one pillow."
I'd never seen a pillow before, but this made sense. In the camp they gave us food, but it was only enough to not starve. In America they would give us a house, a car and an education. Clearly my future depended on my sponsor and the pillows.
When the day came to leave, the IOM gave each of us boys a sweater, sweatpants, white canvas shoes and a large plastic bag with the letters IOM on the side to keep with us as we traveled to our destination.
Benson and I lined up at the fence around the camp, joyous to be on our way, yet sad. Our little brother, Peter, who had been left behind so many times in other camps, watched from the crowd. Despair filled his eyes. They said his file was missing and that he was no longer even in the process. His hope was gone. When would I see him again? I had to do something to help him, but I couldn't do anything in Kakuma Refugee Camp. As soon as I arrived, I would ask my sponsor how to bring Peter to America.
A roar came from overhead. A plane touched down on the dirt strip outside camp, stirring dust into the air. The people gathered at the runway. They made a big deal out of me, Benson and our cousin Lino.
Our other cousins, Joseph and Benjamin, were still in the process, and we hoped they would be joining us someday.
The plane gaped its belly for us fortunate boys to enter. My heart pounded as I moved up the boarding line and began to climb the stairs. The crowd shouted and waved from below like I was the president. I waved back, hoping they couldn't see how scared I was to fly.
People inside directed us to seats and demonstrated the safety belts.
An engine rumbled. A propeller turned, then another, and a roar filled the cabin. I was pushed back against the seat when the plane sped down the dirt strip, bumping and shaking like a tractor trailer. I held my breath and gripped the chair.
The plane lifted off the earth. Flying smoothly as a big bird, we headed toward the sky.
I peered out the window at the vast land that had taken me years to cross on foot but now sped by in minutes.
After Benson disappeared during the attack on our village, my father had searched for him for a year. More attacks came to our area after that. One day, when my father was out searching, we received news that he had been killed. How was that possible? When a huge male lion had killed our goats, my father fought the lion to the death. He was a hero in our village. How was his death possible? He was too big and strong to get killed. I couldn't imagine that my father wouldn't be there, that I'd never again follow him when he worked or hear his stories. I'd never feel as safe without my father.
I'd lost my brother and my father.
Two years later, during another attack, I fled alone into the night. That time the enemy remained in our area and I couldn't return. Neither could I find my family, and so my thousand- mile journey from war began. For three years after fleeing my village, I dodged bombs, lions and death. Along the way, I met other boys like me, and sometimes we walked together. Then I arrived in a small town called Kidepo in southern Sudan. A skinny boy with a crooked arm came out of a hut. I'd passed thousands of boys by then but seeing this boy made my heart leap like a rabbit. Benson had broken his arm as a small child, and it had not healed properly. We hadn't seen each other in five years, but I knew right away this was my brother Benson.
We hugged and tears ran down our faces. The most joyous moment of our lives. We promised to always stay together.
Within mere days, bombs thrust us apart again. We found each other weeks later but were taken to a terrible place called Natinga, a secret camp hidden in the mountains where the rebels trained boys for military service.
If Benson hadn't been with me, I would have died in Natinga. For three months I suffered from yellow fever that left me shivering and shriveling on the ground. Benson kept me alive by making soup from leaves and grass. He carried me to the bush to relieve myself.
When a truck came to take away the sick boys, he lifted my twig body into the back. "I will find you," he said and waved goodbye.
Eventually I reached Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. I received medicine and food. My strength returned but all I could think about was Benson. Could he get out of Natinga? He was tall enough to carry a Kalashnikov rifle. Would he be forced to fight with the soldiers?
Months later, Benson staggered into our camp. He'd escaped Natinga and crossed a treacherous desert, drinking his own urine to survive. We were back together.
Kakuma was safer, but with a hundred thousand people in the camp, sixteen thousand of them boys like us, we never had enough water or food. We stood in lines from morning until night. People fought. It seemed that I couldn't escape fighting. I'd wearied of fleeing from place to place to place; I wanted to build my life. But no future existed for me in Kakuma and war still raged back home in Sudan. Where there's war you cannot stay or you will not survive. Nine years passed with no hope, until my resettlement came.
Now, I was flying to my new life in America with my brother Benson and my cousin Lino.
* * *
In Nairobi, they transferred us to a plane like a big white bird. On the seat in front of me was my own video screen. I'd seen some movies in the camp. Some Ethiopians in the camp had made their huts into theaters with video machines and TVs run by car batteries. But I didn't know how to run my own video.
A white man sat beside me. I observed him to learn what I should do. He put on the earphones. I'd seen a few people with earphones in the camp and put on mine. He pushed buttons on a square thing, and the screen in front of him came on. I pushed buttons. A loud scratchy noise came into my earphones and white and black lines raced across my screen. What was this? A picture of America? Was it raining there?
I pushed a button again. People on the screen talked. Some kind of a show. There was laughter, but I couldn't see who was laughing. The actors talked so fast that I didn't understand a single word except the title Everyone Loves Raymond. If this was how they spoke, how would I communicate in America? They talked in such complicated English. I'd been learning English in the camp, but now what I had been doing seemed like not much more than making letters in the dirt.
I switched to another show. Two teams played a game like soccer but used sticks and glided across shiny white ground barely moving their feet. How did they run like that? They had on big clothes and a round thing covered their heads. They wore funny shoes. What kind of people were they?
Time passed and everyone around me slept. I kept pushing more buttons and found a basketball game. I knew this sport; we'd played basketball in the camp. I relaxed and enjoyed the screen.
The plane bumped hard. My belly jumped and I grabbed the armrests. What was happening? We were still up in the sky. Had the plane hit something up here? Another plane?
No one else moved. The white man beside me didn't even open his eyes. I calmed down, but every time the plane bumped, I held on.
How long before the plane landed? Fear kept me from sleep and even from moving. People walked in the aisle between the seats, but I stayed in mine because I didn't want to fall out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Disturbed in their Nests"
Copyright © 2018 Alephonsion Deng and Judy A. Bernstein.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: August 2, 2001-September 2, 2001Part Two: September 3, 2001-February 6, 2002Part Three: February 7, 2002-June 2002