Tuesday 16 February 2016

From child soldier to refugee lawyer

At just six years old, Deng Thiak Adut was snatched from his mum at their banana farm in South Sudan and forced to fight in a civil war that tore his country apart.

That was back in 1987. Like so many of his generation in Sudan, Deng lost his childhood. As a child soldier for the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, he was expected to kill, or be killed. 

Instead of learning to read and write, Deng was taught to use an AK-47 semi-automatic gun. He endured several years of army service, wounding and getting wounded, and witnessing gruesome atrocities that no human, let alone a child, should observe or be part of.

Deng was just 12-years-old when he was shot in his back as he ran through a village and endured serious injuries. A while later a chance meeting led to him being reunited with his brother, John, and the two of them managed to escape the war by hiding in the back of a corn truck heading for Kenya.

There the two boys spent time in a United Nations Compound for refugees, where they were befriended by a kind Australian couple who, eventually, managed to sponsor their resettlement in Australia as refugees. That was in 1998. 

As a teenager Deng had a lot of catching up to do. His childhood was lost forever. But he taught himself to read and write, and in Australia, Deng worked at a local service station and learnt English. He went on to complete a diploma in accountancy, before deciding to study law at West Sydney University.

Deng is now a celebrated lawyer in Australia, helping to uphold the rights of other refugees. 

Last month, in a speech called ‘Freedom from fear’, Deng told an audience celebrating ‘Australia Day’ that, “I lost the right to be a child. Instead I was taught to sing war songs. I was taught to love the death of others.”

He said Australia had opened its doors to him and given him the opportunity to educate himself. “How lucky I became. How lucky is a person who receives an education in a free land and goes on to use it in daily life.”

Of course, Deng’s story is exceptional, although it shouldn't be. Many millions of refugees are languishing without rescue or help or hope. Their loss is also the world’s loss. How many other innocent refugees, especially children, could thrive and shine if only they were given a chance?

Deng’s story is now famous in Australia and across the world, primarily due to a video produced by West Sydney University to proclaim his success – and theirs. 

But really, Australia shouldn't crow too loudly about its help for refugees. In truth, in an abundantly spacious country much of whose population is ironically made up of the descendants of refugees, it doesn't want any more. 

Australia’s mandatory detention policy means that most asylum seekers are locked in harsh, undignified detention centres - mostly offshore - until they are processed, which can take years.

The official government line is that the country wants to deter people from seeking asylum there. The message is that Australia is not an open country and will not accept everyone, and preferably, no one. 

And so it is the same in Britain. We’re a smaller country, but still spacious – with less than 3% of the land actually built on. But it appears we don’t want refugees here, either. 

Again, ironic, since the British have at one time or another invaded most of the world’s nations. We benefitted from those countries resources and their peoples in an Empire that spanned half the globe. 

Our wealth today is still in part inherited from the times when we ‘owned’ a huge chunk of the planet, and set the rules of world trade that still persist and benefit us today.

The journey of Deng Thiak Adut is an example for us all. We now know his name and his story. But there are many other nameless refugees whose stories we don’t know, and who won’t have the same chances as Deng to shine. 

That’s not because countries such as Australia and Britain can’t provide such chances; it’s because it appears they simply don’t want to.

We can’t help all the refugees, but that’s no excuse for not helping all we can. 

The world is currently experiencing the worst refugee crisis on record, with tens of millions of displaced, desperate people, lost, forlorn, stateless and hopeless. 

Among them are also millions of people just like Deng, needing a chance to thrive. By rescuing refugees, we will be helping them to contribute something positive to the planet, and at the same time, helping our world to be more peaceful and productive. 

Isn't that in all our interests?

• Watch the moving, short (90-second) video about Deng’s escape from being a child soldier, to becoming a refugee, and a successful lawyer. Then think of the millions of refugees who could be Deng, if only…


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 Readers comments are very welcome, including opinions that oppose mine. Comments need to be on-topic and personal attacks will not be allowed. To read more about the style of debating that I encourage on all my blogs, please read my article: 'Debate, don't hate'

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