Rebecca Deng hasn’t had an easy life. Born in what is now South Sudan, her mother passed away when Deng was just two years old. Despite that, Deng lived a rather peaceful life until it was turned upside down in 1991 when the Second Sudanese Civil War reached her village of Duk Padiet and “everything was kind of burned down.” Forced to flee, Deng and her family eventually reached the Kenyan boarder at Lokichogio. As Deng says, “It was the first time I heard the word ‘refugee’ and that we are refugees now because we are kicked out of our country and can’t go back because it’s not safe there.”
Deng and her family would eventually live at the Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya, where Deng first started school and fell in love with learning. As Deng got older though, she couldn’t go to school. “I was held from attending school because I had to be taught to be a woman, how to cook, all of that so I wasn’t even attending classes regularly. But one thing that I told my uncle is that I cannot miss the exams. So I would just show up on the exam day but I still passed classes.”
This caught the attention of her teacher who urged Deng to apply for the Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan program. Deng was accepted and was on the very first flight of Lost Boys and Girls that landed in the United States on November 6, 2000. At the age of 15, Deng eventually arrived in Holland, Michigan ready to begin the next chapter of her life. For the first time, Deng’s incredible story is now in print with her memoir What They Meant For Evil. As part of our My America program series, Deng discussed her powerful memoir on December 6, 2019 at the American Writers Museum. You can listen to the program on AWM Author Talks here, or watch it in its entirety on YouTube here.
We spoke with Deng about the challenges she’s faced in her life, confronting dark memories through writing, and her unique perspective on American life. (This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length).
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: Why tell your story now?
REBECCA DENG: When I was pregnant with my son that’s when I really started asking a lot of questions. Like, what kind of world am I bringing a baby to? And at that time there was a lot of news about immigrant kids at the U.S. border. I really wanted to make something that could be there for other people. So that’s what really triggered a lot of it and memories just poured back and that’s when I started writing. I wrote my manuscript on my iPhone at night and I showed it to a friend and she said I should contact a publisher. And I spoke with a few other people so then I submitted my proposal and now I’m a published author.
But I did feel like when I first came to the United States and I was received at the airport and welcomed [by my foster family], that first day set the tone for the rest of my healing. I could not imagine if I had to arrive at the U.S. border or somewhere and had to be held and not welcomed, that would be traumatizing. But for me, that’s what I always think of America, a nation of many types of people and I was welcomed. And I describe that in my book where I saw the Statue of Liberty and it welcomes those who are weary, those who are kicked out, or left their country of origin…and that was beautiful when I came and was received. So when there’s things that don’t convey American values and culture, like talking down on others, it just breaks my heart.
AWM: How did it feel to go through the process of coming to this country?
DENG: There was a lot of anxiety because I had never been to the U.S., I didn’t know anything about the United States. I grew up in a refugee camp and I did not read books so I didn’t even know U.S. history and all of that. So I was afraid. But, as I say, when I was received, when I arrived and my social worker was there and my foster family was there to welcome me I felt really safe and welcomed. I knew it was going to be difficult because of cultural shock, different food, different language, different kinds of people that I would be staying with. You know, I had seen some white people when I was in the refugee camp but they’d just come in and out as workers with the U.N. But then I had a family I had to stay with and those things didn’t really matter because there was a choice to be family. I think that’s what we overlook sometimes. All the other stuff doesn’t really matter at the end of the day when people are received well and welcome.
“Family is a choice, it’s when you choose to love people and welcome those people. That’s family.”
AWM: What does that notion of family mean to you?
DENG: Family has been an interesting thing for me personally because I was orphaned. My mom died when I was two and then when we were in the refugee camp we received the news that my dad was killed so I was raised by my uncle’s family. And then I came to the U.S. and got a foster family and I think of them as mom and dad. So to me family has always been people who choose to love each other and to be open to each other about life and just being there for each other. I think that’s how I describe family. I think family is a choice, it’s when you choose to love people and welcome those people. That’s family.
AWM: What ways has writing impacted your life?
DENG: Writing was really healing for me in a way because I was writing and had to think deeply and it took me to memories that I didn’t want to go to. A couple of times I would cry but then keep writing. And the whole process now that I look back was so healing. It was kind of like talking to my other self. Some people say time will heal you and you can forget but you can never forget anything that happened to you. It’s just a lie. But you can make peace with it and it is called healing. You know, things happen and if you need to grieve, grieve. If you need to think about it for a couple of hours, think about it but keep going. I think that’s what we should be telling people, not to forget, but to know it’s ok to revisit those memories as well as knowing we are more than our memories and wounds and that there is a world of new restoration to explore and enjoy. So yeah what was healing for me was just writing and the whole idea that we need to be open about our brokenness and healing with others too so that they can heal as well. And healing doesn’t mean that nothing will ever happen again. Life is difficult but here is this moment where things are good and things are whole and I know more and more of who I am. I’m a human being that is part of the human society and can contribute my ideas and try to seek out others. So it was good to write. I long and can’t wait to write about other topics.
AWM: What are the takeaways you hope people get from reading your book?
DENG: First of all I want people to understand who refugees are. Because sometimes I feel like people don’t even understand the difference between refugees and immigrants. An immigrant is somebody that decides that my environment can no longer accommodate me. I have to seek a better life. They choose to take a journey, a difficult journey. A refugee is someone that doesn’t have a choice. You have a gun to your head or something and you don’t even have time. Most of it happens maybe when you are sleeping and you hear a gun or your house is set on fire and you have to get out. So you are on the run. And if you do go back to that country you are definitely going to be killed. That’s a refugee. They depend on nations that can open their borders. So what I want people to take away is that any of us can be a refugee.
“If we listen to each other we might figure out how to make our nation better together by bringing in different perspectives and experiences.”
And sometimes when we come around those people and really act as a global village and help them as a good neighbor, they can bring a new perspective or they see things in a different way. And that is good for each other. Listening to people that have different experiences than you makes you think of things in a different way. And as a former refugee who is a very proud American, I see America in a different lens than somebody that has been in America their whole life. And they have a completely different perspective than me! I want to use my book to talk with immigrants and refugees as well as people who have ancestors who came to this country a long time ago. If we listen to each other we might figure out how to make our nation better together by bringing in different perspectives and experiences.
AWM: Like you said, you bring a very unique perspective to this country, so what does the notion of “being American” mean to you?
DENG: One thing that I’m proud of being American is the freedom of speech. You can speak your mind. You can vote for whoever you want to vote for. You can go to the voting center and walk out and not worry about somebody waiting to attack you or something like that. I love that about America. That freedom is what defines America in my head when I think about it. I don’t want to be in an America where everybody is in one party or thinks the same thing and all of that. I want to be in an America where people are free to voice out what they believe but with respect. Like I just said, when you get out of the voting center and nobody is intimidating you, that’s respect, in a different way. And that dignifies a person. That’s what I love about America and I’m proud of being American.
“I believe the America we must all fight for is that which protects the dignity of all people. The America that sets the table for dialogue with respect for each other. The America that joins in the celebration of our differences yet treasuring our oneness is the America I long to see.”
What I don’t like about America is when we know that we are a powerful nation but choose to live in fear. Living in fear means always being kind of paranoid. Like, this person is different than me or these people are coming in to do this bad thing. No. That is fear, that is not freedom. It’s kind of like we are violating our identity as Americans. Yes, there are going to be difficult things like terrorism, but we have to handle those things with dignity and respect for other human beings.
I’m a proud American citizen in that I love the freedom. You know, I was in South Sudan and then Kenya and then I came here. I believe the America we must all fight for is that which protects the dignity of all people. The America that sets the table for dialogue with respect for each other. The America that joins in the celebration of our differences yet treasuring our oneness is the America I long to see.
AWM: Absolutely. And speaking of Americans, if you could meet one American writer from the past who would it be and why?
DENG: You know who I really like? Martin Luther King. When I hear his speeches I just feel like we had a great man that was caught between two different kinds of worlds but a man that was speaking what is right. That is a difficult thing to be, to be that brave. Like, telling the black community to not be violent and don’t do things out of anger, but stay together in solidarity. And then telling the white community that this is wrong. I am created just as equal as you. I thought that was really interesting. Maya Angelou is another writer that I admired. I listen to her before she passed but would have loved to sit down with her for dinner and talk the night away!
AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Or for anyone in a similar position as you were — a refugee trying to heal and find a home?
DENG: When it comes to writing I would say just take your time. If you want to write and it’s things that are more personal, take your time until you are ready. I was ready to share my story but sometimes there are experiences that are too hard for people to write and maybe they just come out as anger or it won’t be clear because you have not healed. I think for me and my story there are some beautiful things and some horrific things but in my soul I was ready to say, “Hey, I’m just gonna tell it. There’s nothing to hide. This is me. This is Rebecca Deng and I’m ok with that.” When I wrote my book I wasn’t concerned about revealing any part because I was ready, mentally, spiritually, everything. So, I would say just be ready if you want to say things that are personal. Some of my past trauma has been used to level me or bully me in tones like, “You have gone through so much, therefore, you might be crazy or need help.” I know myself and I am more than those boxes that people put you in. I am a human being that life just happens to but I am working everyday just like everyone else to be better.
“We immigrants and refugees see America in a quite different way than people who have lived here longer. Because when you see something everyday you don’t see it with a different eye.
And for immigrants and refugees, my encouragement is to really kind of reach out to people in your communities. Like, this My America exhibit, when I heard about it and that I’m going to be with you guys, I was just so happy because I’ve never seen anything like it. Those are the ideas, things that I think about. Like what I said before, we [immigrants and refugees] see America in a quite different way than people who have lived here longer. Because when you see something everyday you don’t see it with a different eye. I will also encourage Americans that have been here for generations to be open and include newcomers at the table so we can have productive discussions and untangle issues from both old and new eyes.
AWM: That’s kind of the idea behind the exhibit. To show people, especially young people, that their stories matter and that there are people who look like them who are writers and they are not alone.
DENG: Yeah, and I think that’s a dialogue that we have to bring back into American society. Because I think a lot of people are people of potential and because they don’t have access to stories like these or they don’t even have the means to get them there, they’re just like, “Oh, there’s no point to even try. Who in my community has even done that so why would I?”
Be sure to join us December 6 at 6:30 pm when Rebecca Deng stops by to read and discuss her new memoir What They Meant For Evil.