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The incredible journey of Yak Deng

Yak Deng reflects on his time at UTSC and the remarkable journey that lead him from Sudan to Canada. (Photo by Ken Jones)

The first schooling Yak Deng ever received took place beneath a tree.

In the forests of what was then southern Sudan, in a time and place ravaged by war, five-year old Deng happened upon a man teaching kids to write the alphabet.

"It was so nice to learn something new," says Deng, recalling the thrill of his first experience with formalized education. Although he didn't know it then, as Deng scribbled English beneath that tree he was forging an escape route for himself, a way out of his war-torn country and into a better future.

Next month, Deng will become one of the unlikeliest people to ever graduate from the University of Toronto Scarborough. As he ascends to the stage at Convocation Hall to collect his Bachelor of Science degree he will take the last few steps on an almost unbelievable journey, one that began in a humanitarian crisis twenty-five years ago and halfway around the world.

Soldier dreams

Deng was born in southern Sudan in 1989, six years after civil war broke out between government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). For the first thirteen years of his life he and his family lived as nomads, staying in makeshift villages and trying to stay one step ahead of the Sudan army and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda, led by Joseph Kony. The LRA rebels, with support from the Sudanese government, would regularly plunder civilian settlements, killing with abandon and abducting young boys like Deng to serve as child soldiers.

Somehow Deng and his family survived. An enthusiastic student, he completed grade seven, the highest level of education available in a region where classes were sporadic, as teachers were often called to the front lines to fight. Although he loved school, Deng had to settle for the dreams of every other boy he knew.

"I was just waiting to grow up and be a soldier," says Deng. "There were no opportunities. War was all around. Little kids like me just wanted to grow up fast and join the army."

Deng's mother had often told him about his uncle who lived in Kenya. This uncle had been one of the original Lost Boys of Sudan, the more than 20,000 children who had been displaced and in many cases orphaned during the civil war. After incredible journeys across hundreds of miles of wilderness, many of the Lost Boys ended up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya.

Deng's uncle lived in the Kakuma camp in north-western Kenya along with nearly 100,000 refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Deng knew that life at Kakuma would not be without terrible hardship, but he also knew it would be safer than in Sudan.

More importantly, the children of Kakuma could go to school.

The long walk to school

Deng and his family decided the young boy's future lay in Kenya. Saying goodbye to his mother and father, Deng joined more than one hundred young men on a harrowing journey by foot to northern Kenya.

For six weeks Deng woke every morning at 4am and hiked until noon, when the sun reached its height and the land shimmered with equatorial heat. After a three-hour rest he would continue walking until 10pm. The group would zigzag in and out of northern Uganda to avoid the rebels. Sometimes they would come across a village where the locals would take pity on them and share their meager food, but more often than not the boys went hungry, as they could only eat what they could kill.

"It was long, but we got used to it," says Deng of the walk, which covered more than 300 punishing miles. "The worst part was not knowing how long it would take. It felt like we were going nowhere."

After a month-and-a-half of arduous hiking Deng finally reached Kakuma. He quickly set to work searching for his uncle. He found him in less than two days.

"It was good," says Deng, with characteristic understatement, of the moment he met his uncle for the first time. "It felt like I had met my Mom and Daddy again." Deng's uncle would become his father-figure in the camp.

In love with learning

Although linked to the famed Lost Boys of Sudan, Deng disputes the moniker being applied to him.

"The Lost Boys were a whole generation of boys who came before me, whose families were mostly killed," says Deng. "I had an opportunity to live with my parents until I was thirteen, and when I was in Kenya I had my uncle and other relatives. I don't call myself a Lost Boy out of respect for those who have truly experienced life without their families."

At Kakuma, Deng returned to school and his love of learning blossomed. He earned the second-highest marks in the camp and fell in love with math and science. When friends who had been relocated from Kakuma to Australia offered to sponsor him to attend a nearby boarding school, Deng didn't think twice. He spent his last two years of high school in relative comfort, where he met a handful of other refugees who had been similarly blessed.

Two years later, Deng finished his last exam and returned to the Kakuma camp. He asked his uncle if he knew how he could reach his parents; he wanted to tell them he'd graduated. Since he had left Sudan, the civil way had abated, and his uncle had heard that Deng's family had moved back to the region where he was born. His uncle produced a telephone number and Deng dialed it. His mother answered.

"It was amazing," says Deng, laughing at the memory of hearing his family's voices after such a long time. "I hadn't spoken to them since I'd left five years earlier. Some of my siblings had been born in my absence. They had only heard rumours about me!"

From Kenya to Canada

Now that he was back in the camp Deng faced a familiar problem: a complete lack of opportunities. Even though he was a high school graduate, Deng figured nothing more would come of his love for science. Then Deng heard about a Canadian organization, World University Service of Canada (WUSC), that sponsors disadvantaged children from around the world to continue their education in Canada.

"I knew about Canada from my geography class, and I knew how cold it was. But I didn't know much else. It was hard to form an impression of the place when I was living in the camp, because the camp was nothing but confinement."

WUSC had posted applications at Kakuma, so Deng applied. He had the grades to qualify. To his amazement he then passed the interview stage, more tests and screening, and was accepted into the program.

"I tried my luck," says Deng, laughing at the unlikeliness of it all. "And I got myself to U of T!"

Deng had won the coveted undergraduate spot at UTSC. Students here pay a small levy so the campus can accept one student from WUSC every year. Most recent students have hailed from camps in either Kenya or Malawi.

After calling his parents to let them know his news, in 2009 Deng boarded a flight to Canada to begin his new life. A delegation from UTSC greeted him at Pearson International Airport. One of them held a sign that read "Karibu Yak" in Swahili.

"I couldn't believe it. I said to myself, 'Hey! That's my name!' It was a great feeling."

A global campus

Deng enrolled in applied microbiology (a joint program with Centennial College), a dream come true for a young man obsessed with science. He was provided a room in residence at UTSC. At first the only people he met were Chinese students who had been recruited through the Green Path Program.

"I was surprised that everyone was so quiet," says Deng with a smile. "But then I realized the people around me were also international students. They just had a different way of approaching new people."

It didn't take long for students to warm to Deng, and vice versa.

"I've made a lot of friends," says Deng. "UTSC is great for that. People here are from everywhere. If I left Canada today and went to China, I'd have somebody to talk to and a place to stay. And in my classes, I meet everybody. I make friends almost every single class."

When he wasn't in class or lab, Deng volunteered his time with a number of campus initiatives. He mentored high school students through the IMANI program and incoming students through the first year mentorship program. He was also a programming assistant with the International Student Centre.

But the contribution closest to his heart was his work as a Student Refugee Program Coordinator for WUSC. Deng helped incoming refugees adjust to life at UTSC, showing them the ropes, answering questions, helping them choose their courses and generally smoothing their transition from camp life into Canadian society.

"When I got here I had to start from scratch and fight to get to know things," says Deng. "That's why I help those who came after me, to make their lives a little bit easier and so they can feel at home. Some of them came from the same camp I was in. I know what they've been through. I know what they know."

The last few steps

For his contributions to campus life Deng recently received a UTSC Letter Award. His name will be added to a plaque on campus (no word yet if it will be written in English or Swahili). And even though he is about to graduate, Deng still mentors his fellow refugees, who are now simply his friends.

"Canada is beautiful in the summer. Why isn't it always summer here?" Deng laughs. "I grew up in the country. Whenever I have a break I go with my friends to places like Lake Simcoe. I like to swim. It reminds me of back home, but with no fear of war."

Deng is looking forward to taking the last few steps of his incredible journey, when he steps onstage at Convocation Hall in June. He can't wait to call his parents so he can deliver the latest installment of unbelievable news about their son.

He also can't wait to visit his family and to see his homeland again, which in 2011 became the world's newest independent state, the Republic of South Sudan. Deng will travel there once he has found a job and can afford the airfare. But no matter how long he stays away he'll always feel connected to his Canadian home-away-from-home in Scarborough.

"I am so happy and thankful to the UTSC community, especially to the students who paid the levy to get me here. Everybody I've met has made me feel like this is my community, like everybody here is my family. I will always remember that others believed in me and helped me do what I always wanted. Now it is my duty to do my part and not let them down."

© University of Toronto Scarborough