Imagine you were two brothers born in Sudan in the seventies and eighties. Imagine the war erupted, and you are both successively kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Will you manage to get away and start a new life? And if you do, will the war let you go or will it – like it often does – catch-up with you and take everything you have?
Today, you will bear with me, as I am not bringing one exceptional story but two. I am inspired by John Mac Acuek and his younger brother Deng Thiak Adut. John and Deng were born in a Dinka family, in a village near the White Nile River in South Sudan. John and Deng were 10 years apart, respectively born in 1972 and 1983.
#StolenChildhood A couple years after the Second Sudanese Civil war, one of the longest and most murderous wars of Africa, erupted, John Mac was abducted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He was 13 years old. Deng lived the same ordeal a few years later, when he was barely 6 years old.
The kids were brainwashed and drugged with khat, an herbal stimulant popular in East Africa, to turn them into killing machines. It is estimated that 19,000 children were enrolled as child soldiers by all sides of the armed conflict.
John Mac never accepted that terrible fate and he escaped when he had a chance. Instead of running as far as possible from the war zone, John went looking for his brother. When the two siblings were reunited, it was 10 long years since they’d seen each other, and Deng was already 12!
As they knew they were at risk of being killed by the rebels for deserting, they escaped to Kenya instead of returning to their native village. They found refuge in Kakuma refugee camp and lived there several years. John Mac reunited with a childhood friend and married her. Their first child was born in the camp.
Their fate changed in 1997, when they met Christine Harrison. Ms Harrison was an Australian aid worker whom, with her husband Bob Campbell, had decided ‘to save one refugee’. When they met John Mac and his family, they realised they couldn’t take only one of them, which would have meant to separate them again. John Mac pleaded with the couple to give them a chance and help them all come to live in Australia.
Christine Harrison and her husband Bob Campbell changed their original ‘one refugee’ plan and looked for ways to sponsor the whole family. In June 1998, John Mac Acuek, his wife Elizabeth, their baby son Joshua, and his younger brother Deng landed in Sydney, Australia. Their only possessions were the clothes they wore and a baby bag. They were the third South Sudanese refugee family to be settled in Australia. Though the first days were challenging, due to the cultural differences, Deng was to later share that they felt safe for the first time since their childhood.
#JohnMacJourney John, a very intelligent young man who spoke seven languages, completed his secondary education and went on to study anthropology and international development at the University of Western Sydney. Acuek was the first Sudanese to graduate from an Australian university.
Despite that achievement, the Australian workplace didn’t welcome him with open arms. Acuek dreamed of doing humanitarian or peace-keeping work, but all he could find were factory jobs, as a labourer. Disabused, not able to offer his family the good life he had dreamed of, the oldest of the two Sudanese siblings decided to go back to his birth country. He hoped he could find something meaningful in this country that had lost 2 million people to a ruthless war.
The separation with his family was not in vain. John Mac was finally able to work in the field of his dreams: an executive in an international NGO caring for refugees and displaced people.
#DengAdutJourney Deng Adut was as determined as his older brother. As he had never been to school till he came to Australia, Deng taught himself how to read and write in English, studying every night and working days. He passed all his secondary education exams and, in 2005, won a scholarship to Western Sydney University (WSU). His brother had pushed him to study law, as he was a “very argumentative” young man. Adut graduated with a Bachelor of Laws, and later completed a Master of Laws in Criminal Prosecution at Wollongong University and a second Master of Laws in International Governance at WSU.
Unlike his brother, the young lawyer immediately found work in his field. Yet, the young man had a big dream that wasn’t fulfilled in those different law firms: to work for the Sudanese community in Australia, which he knew was facing so many difficulties in all areas of life. “Those who are on the fringe, they are people who look like me. We sit at the same table. I have to protect them. I have to voice their concerns. I will listen to them.”
He ended up creating his own firm, AC Law Group, in 2014, with a former law school classmate. He decided to base his practice in Blacktown, the neighborhood where he lived since coming to Australia. AC Law and its founder quickly earned the reputation of being the defenders of the poor, of those who cannot always afford to afford quality legal representation. Up to 40% of their cases are treated free of charge!
Although his dedication to his community quickly made him a household name in the courts of justice, it is an event outside the courts that accelerated his rise to national and international notoriety. An event that a former child soldier could never have anticipated: the outstanding success of a short video about Adut’s life and his reunion with his mother, who was still living in his childhood home in South Sudan. The video, which was produced in 2015 by his alma mater, WSU, went viral as soon as it was uploaded! To date, ‘Deng Thiak Adut Unlimited’ has been viewed 2.7 million times!
In 2016, Deng Thiak Adut published his autobiography, ‘Songs of a War Boy’, an instant bestseller worldwide. The same year, Adut was awarded the 2016 Law Society of New South Wales President’s Medal!
The consecration came in January 2016, when Deng was invited to give the 2016 Australia Day address, the equivalent of the Independence Day speech in most of our countries! Deng, whom to this day is still haunted by the tragic memories of his stolen childhood and who have long accepted that he will never be able to outrun his nightmares, decided to offer hope and not gloom to his audience. In his impassionate speech, titled ‘Freedom from fear’, Deng called upon migrant to remember and cherish where they came from.
“You must have a dream that takes you up and beyond any past trauma and turmoil.”
Last year, in 2017, New South Wales Prime-Minister announced that Deng Thiak Adut, a 34 years old former child soldier and refugee, who migrated to Australia less than 20 years before, represented best the country’s spirit and was named the 2017 New South Wales’ Australian of the Year!
#FamilyTragedy It saddens me to tell you that Deng never got a chance to share the fruit of his extraordinary rise in Australia’s society with his older brother, the man who risked his own life to go and save his sibling from his life as a child soldier and to whom he owed his new life in Australia.
John Mac Acuek was tragically killed in South Soudan in 2014. John Mac was shot and killed by rebels while he was trying to rescue civilians. The civil conflict that had ravaged his country for the last three decades, a conflict he had fled some 16 years earlier before being drawn back to it, believing he could make a difference, had finally claimed his life! John Mac was just 42 years old, leaving behind his widow, Elizabeth, and their five children.
Deeply shaken and revolted by this cruel turn of events, Deng decided to start a foundation to keep his brother’s legacy alive. The John Mac Foundation works to educate and empower refugees and people whose lives have been interrupted by war, trying to address some of the problems that held John back during his life. The Foundation runs a scholarship fund for refugees and other under-privileged groups.
Through the non-profit organisation, Deng tries to give others the same opportunities he has received “so they can go and work in their community and feel like Australians.”