Sudanese refugee brings story of hope to local students

April 27, 2007
By

TRINA RODRIGUEZ


Photo by Trina Rodriguez
Valentino Achak Deng autographs books for students at Meridian Academy.

As a child in Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng was a witness to events unimaginable to most. He survived murderous raids on his village and lost contact with his family. He walked hundreds of miles—starving, injured and at one point blind from infection—to escape escalating violence against his Dinka countrymen. And he spent the majority of his youth in refugee camps where unaccompanied boys his age performed hard labor or were enlisted in the army to earn their keep.

Valentino’s is the story of the lost boys of Sudan, victims of a conflict that began many years before the current crisis in Darfur, and last week he graciously shared it with students at Meridian Academy in Forest Hills.

Meridian is a small, independent secondary school that provides an interdisciplinary, collaborative learning experience. In a course on media and journalism, humanities teacher Betsy Grant introduced her students to the complex social and political landscape of Sudan. After weeks spent poring over newspaper and magazine articles, the class took a “book vacation” and read “What Is the What,” a new novel that chronicles Deng’s boyhood in southern Sudan, and his eventual relocation to the United States.

“It’s a great book for [the students] because a lot of the narrative happens when Valentino is their age,” said Grant.

Wanting to provide her class with the richest experience possible, Grant went one step further and called the book’s publisher to request a personal visit. “I told them we were a small school with limited funds but a lot of heart,” Grant said. Deng was planning a book tour that included a stop at Boston College, and the publisher agreed to pay for hotel costs, so as it turned out “heart” was all Meridian needed.

“The students were inspired knowing that the subject of the book they were studying was going to visit the school. They brought in new questions every day,” said Grant. The book empowered the students to discuss complex issues by relating them to the personal experience of someone their own age, she said.

“Who has heard of Darfur?” Deng asked the attentive crowd. All hands went up. With a smile and steady voice he proceeded to explain the geography and history of the conflict in Sudan and how he was able to survive. Meridian students were joined by visitors from the Waring School in Beverly and their teacher Jim Watras, who jumped at the opportunity to provide his students with such a unique experience.

Deng said he shares his story because the people he tells can make a difference. “You can ask your parents, government and neighborhood to help,” he said. “And we can make people that are far away happy.”

At the end of Deng’s talk the students read questions thoughtfully from note cards and were interested in learning more about current events, narrative tools, what certain characters in the book are doing today, and how a young person was able to survive such hardship. The discussion was poignant, but always framed by optimism. As Deng put it, “I got through it with hope and faith.”

“I was impressed by his ability to talk about that stuff. It seems difficult,” said Claire Lamitie, a 7th-grader at Meridian, “It helps you realize what a great life we have.”

This was echoed by her classmate, Benjamin Hosking, who was moved by the courage it took for Deng to “stand up and say, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like what’s happening in Sudan’.” Reading “What is the What” gave Benjamin the answer to the question of why it is important to give support to Sudanese aid organizations. He said he plans on writing an article about Deng for his school newspaper and wants to show others that what they do in our own backyards can affect individuals as far away as Africa.

“I want the students to become people who are open to the world,” said Deng, who is now a college student in Pennsylvania. “I want to empower them with knowledge and show them that despite difficulties, people have the capacity to overcome hardships.”

Grant said her students have learned a lot from this message of optimism and hope, and now have a profound knowledge about a place that is often overlooked in school curricula.

They are also learning the joy of giving. Student photographs, displayed last month at Jamaica Plain’s Art Market, were sold to the public and proceeds were donated to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation—assisting Sudanese in America and helping rebuild southern Sudan. For more information, visit www.valentinoachakdeng.com and www.meridianacademy.org. was able to survive. Meridian students were joined by visitors from the Waring School in Beverly and their teacher Jim Watras, who jumped at the opportunity to provide his students with such a unique experience.

Deng said he shares his story because the people he tells can make a difference. “You can ask your parents, government and neighborhood to help,” he said. “And we can make people that are far away happy.”

At the end of Deng’s talk the students read questions thoughtfully from note cards and were interested in learning more about current events, narrative tools, what certain characters in the book are doing today and how a young person was able to survive such hardship. The discussion was poignant, but always framed by optimism. As Deng put it, “I got through it with hope and faith.”

“I was impressed by his ability to talk about that stuff. It seems difficult,” said Claire Lamitie, a 7th-grader at Meridian, “It helps you realize what a great life we have.”

This was echoed by her classmate, Benjamin Hosking, who was moved by the courage it took for Deng to “stand up and say, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like what’s happening in Sudan.’” Reading “What Is the What” gave Benjamin the answer to the question of why it is important to give support to Sudanese aid organizations. He said he plans on writing an article about Deng for his school newspaper and wants to show others that what they do in our own back yards can affect individuals as far away as Africa.

“I want the students to become people who are open to the world,” said Deng, who is now a college student in Pennsylvania. “I want to empower them with knowledge and show them that despite difficulties, people have the capacity to overcome hardships.”

Grant said her students have learned a lot from this message of optimism and hope, and now have a profound knowledge about a place that is often overlooked in school curricula.

They are also learning the joy of giving. Student photographs, displayed last month at Jamaica Plain’s Art Market, were sold to the public and proceeds were donated to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation—assisting Sudanese in America and helping rebuild southern Sudan.

For more information, visit www.valentinoachakdeng.com and www.meridianacademy.org.

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