Before she was a teenager, Achut Deng escaped civil war in South Sudan and life in a Kenyan refugee camp:
“I remember what my grandmother told me, 'Don't look back. It will slow you down.'”
Until recently, she carried that secret history with her.
“I chose to give my three boys something that I have never had," she says.
Today, On Point: Author Achut Deng's journey of survival from Sudan to America.
Achut Deng, author of “Don't Look Back: A Memoir of War, Survival, and My Journey from Sudan to America." (@achut_deng)
From DON’T LOOK BACK, by Achut Deng and Keely Hutton. Not to be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Achut Deng was a child living through the Sudanese civil war. She was a teenager when she managed to escape Sudan to a Kenyan refugee camp. She was a young woman when she arrived in the United States as a refugee. And she was a mother still carrying the secret weight of her history when she decided to share her story with her sons. Just imagine that moment. Well, Achut writes about her life in Sudan and in America in her new memoir, Don't Look Back. She co-wrote it with Keely Hutton, and she joins us from Sioux Falls, South Dakota today. Welcome to On Point.
ACHUT DENG: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, how are you doing today?
DENG: I am doing great. A little cold outside. But I'm doing well.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, good. I wonder if I could just start with this question. You know, before you decided to tell your sons about your whole story, about your life, before you came to the United States, did they know any of it at all?
DENG: All they knew was that mom grew up in the refugee camp as an orphan, and that was it. And everything else I hide from them.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell me why. For those many years before you decided to tell your sons, why did you feel that you couldn't or wouldn't?
DENG: For so many reasons. I felt because my past ... it's full of pain. Embarrassment. And also, I know I'm raising three boys. So I didn't want to remind myself and then have to deal with my past. And so for me, I wanted to focus on how to move forward and not be reminded of my past. So for me, I just wanted to focus on what to do, and what to give my sons going forward and not be reminded of my past. That was my focus.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I have to tell you, it makes perfect sense to me, right? Because when you're trying to build a new life, one that's so different from the one you led before. And you're trying to build a life for your children as well, it makes total sense to me that, well, to take the title from your book, that you wouldn't want to look back on what you had left behind. So can you tell me about the moment where you decided you were going to tell your children about your life before the United States.
DENG: We were at the laundromat. And I told them ... that I had this opportunity, and this is what Mom wants to do. Mom has a very crazy past and I have decided to open up. You motivated me in so many ways and I am so grateful I am here today. Strong because of you.
And because of that, I'm tired of running from my past. I can only protect you from the world. And I tell all three of you to be open with me. Tell me anything. No matter how bad it is, I should also be open enough to tell you anything, no matter what.
I'm tired of running from my past. I can only protect you from the world.
So I'm here with my past. I wanted to let you know, no matter how bad it is, that here is my past. And what is behind this strong woman? What is behind this strong mother? And so that's how I approach the situation. That's how I told them that this is what I've been through, and this is how I want to tell the world. But before the world, I wanted to let you guys know what is behind this strong mom.
CHAKRABARTI: How old were they when you made that decision?
DENG: This was three years ago. So they were 13, 12 and 6.
CHAKRABARTI: So you told them while you were in the laundromat that you were going to share your life, before you came to the United States? Details of that.
CHAKRABARTI: Where were you when you actually did start telling them that story.
DENG: I was at the laundromat here in Sioux Falls. ... We had already put our clothes in the laundry, in the washer. And we went to grab something to eat. And I sat down with them. It was so nervous. But at the same time, I knew I was ready for a change for myself. And I wanted to have a better relationship with my boys. ... I wanted to protect my children from the world.
And that's exactly what, you know, my grandmother did. She told me the night she died. You know, she didn't want me to see the worst in people. I wanted to do the same thing for my boys. I'm protecting them from the world. But I should not be afraid to tell them what I've been through.
CHAKRABARTI: So as you're there sitting over a meal with your three sons, what part of your story did you begin with when you told them?
DENG: So my middle son ... said, Mom, can you tell us, give us an example of your past? And the first thing that came to mind was that, do you guys know the reason I don't sleep in my bed around 4th of July? And I do not expect my younger one to know. And those two was like, well, we always thought it was because maybe you didn't want to sleep in your bedroom. And I told them. 4th of July, ever since I came to America, and the first 4th of July in 2001. No one told me Independence Day was 4th of July. So what that does to me, it put me back to the war zone every year.
So for me, that's the reason why I don't sleep in my bedroom. I come to the living room. Because 4th of July fireworks reminds me of the gunshot from when I left my village. ... They had no idea. And so they go right away, Mom. We don't have to celebrate 4th of July. You don't have to buy fireworks, because I buy fireworks for them every year.
And so I told him, no, this is part of your history. You guys are American. You were born here. And my path is not going to take away your history. I'm aware of my past. I'm aware of that little girl. So that is something that you don't have to worry about. But that is my past. And so ... my older son said, okay, mom, whatever you decide. We are going to support you and we will be there every step of the way.
You guys are American. You were born here. And my path is not going to take away your history.
CHAKRABARTI: And how old were you when those gunshots that you described that were raining down on your village happened? How old were you?
DENG: This was 1991. I was six years old.
CHAKRABARTI: Exactly the same age as your youngest son was when you told them about that?
DENG: Yes. So when I was telling them that, and I'm looking at my younger son. It was terrifying. But I knew this was it for me. I am done running from my past. It is time for me to look back. As the title says, don't look back. That title has been a thing for me, have been my motivation for me not to look back. And I'm thankful for that. But again, I wanted to revisit it so I can heal myself. And so my three boys can understand what their mother has been through. And again, so the world can understand what damage have been done to this strong mom. But yet, she's able to pick up herself. And she's still fighting.
CHAKRABARTI: So your youngest, did he realize? I mean, did you say that you were six years old when that happened?
DENG: Yes. So as we were talking at the laundry about this, and I told him. He did not try to say, you know, I'm six years old, but he was listening. This is what happened to mom. So, you don't like fireworks, mom? That was his first question. Mom, you don't like fireworks. And I told him it's not because I don't like fireworks. They remind me of my past. But I don't hate fireworks. It just reminds me what happened when I was six years old. When I was seven years old. It takes me back to the war zone at that particular moment. But the great thing is, I'm aware of that. So I don't go crazy ... because I'm aware of that.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm wondering if you could begin to tell us more of the story that you did tell your sons. Tell us about what happened that forced you as a six-year-old to leave your village in Sudan.
DENG: My village in South Sudan was just an awesome village at the time. It was me, my grandmother, my mom at the time of the terrorist attack was not there. She had left to go take care of my father, because my father ... was forced to join the SPLA, join the military. And so it was me, my grandmother and my uncle and my aunt in our compound.
And then all of a sudden, one night, we were forced to leave the compound by gunshot. And my understanding that night, I didn't understand. It was just the rubble. And that was it, between one tribe to another. Whether it was politic, whether it was what, I didn't understand it, at the time. All I knew we had a war between South Sudan and the North Sudanese. ... And days later, I lost my grandmother.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell us what happened?
DENG: ... The rebel came through and attacked the village my grandmother, mother and I were in. When they came through, they were speaking Dinka. So my first thought it was that these people coming in for help. But my grandmother said, Wait. So we waited. Next thing I know. The people that was speaking Dinka changed the language to a different language.
Next thing I know, my grandmother took ... a bed sheet, and she put that over me. And so she covers my head, my face. And the last thing I heard, her last word was that you are strong. That's the last thing I heard from my grandmother. I didn't hear her heartbeat after that. Then after a while. The rebel left. And that's the last I heard from my grandmother. Again, not knowing. And that's not ever seeing a dead person. ... So that night we were rescued by the SPLA ... and that's when one of the soldiers told me that my grandmother was gone. She was dead.
CHAKRABARTI: I have to just say thank you. I know this is hard. And if there ever comes a point achieved where you want to stop telling the story, please do let me know. I will completely understand. Because the pain never really goes away. When losing someone, but especially losing someone you love so dearly like that.
DENG: It never goes away and the image never goes away. And that's why it took me this long to revisit. That's why her advice will always stay with me. Don't look back, it will only slow down you now.
It never goes away and the image never goes away. And that's why it took me this long to revisit.
CHAKRABARTI: She is the one who told you that.
DENG: She is the one, that night of the terrorists. Because my feet swelled up. And the gunshots were very heavy. I was scared. Children were crying. Women were crying. It was just people crying everywhere. And so I keep looking back and she was holding my hand and she said, Don't look back. It will only slow you down. So all the images. Her voice.
I tried all these years to remember that. Every time I have the image or have flashback, I remember that. I remember her telling me not to look back. It will slow you down. I remember her telling me how strong I am. So no matter how hard the story is, she left something in me. And I can't let her down. I can't let myself down. ... I can't let my kids down. My past was never my choice. But now going forward is my choice.
I can't let my kids down. My past was never my choice. But now going forward is my choice.
CHAKRABARTI: Getting to that other town involved the just horrific hardship of river crossing, with you and 300 other people. Where 50 people died trying to cross the river to safety. I mean, if we didn't already know so much about what has happened in Sudan, it would be hard to believe that these things were happening to children as young as you, and yet they were.
I'm just wondering, again, in your in your six-year-old mind, as you were experiencing these things, like what was that? What was happening in your mind? When night came, or the rare times you were able to rest before, you know, getting to places of safety, what was going through your mind? How did your body feel?
DENG: Getting to places like this, you just only hope. You lose hope. And then you have to gain it back. And having people who have words. And again knowing that this is it. If you survive now, you just have hope for later. And that was it. You survived now. You have hope for later. At the time, there was so many times a few nights before my grandmother passed that I have give up. My feet couldn't go. My little legs was tired.
... We had to like clean up and pick up the skeletons. The human remains. Again, you survive the now and you have hope for the later. And again ... it's like, what do you do? You have fear. And you have people that are telling you it'll be okay when you know this is not okay. This is absolutely not okay. But you have people that are telling you it will be okay even though you are removing human remains and then you sleep there.
CHAKRABARTI: And you had to do this.
DENG: You have to do this. Yet someone is telling you it will be okay. When I had the guinea worms. I never had them in the village. Don't know how to treat it. Don't know how to take them off. But I had Adual. Who never had a child. But she have the heart of a human being. She have that kind heart that I saw from my grandmother. She knew how to take care of children that were never hers. She took out the guinea worms on my little feet, and then she's telling me, we got to keep moving. We have to find shelter.
We have to make it to another place that is better than where we are now. I know your little leg is hurting, but we got to keep going. You cry until you are done crying. Like till there is no more tears. So having people in your corner that are very positive, I feel like that's what motivated me. I lost my grandmother and then the soldiers showed up. And these soldiers, they were human.
CHAKRABARTI: Her hope that you just described. You call it like the flame that lit the way for both of you as you walked hundreds of miles. Across very unforgiving terrain to ultimately get to safety. I mean, how long did that journey take?
DENG: I would say it took forever. Yeah, it took a long time. But again, it was hope. We made it there with nothing but hope. You know, there were some days we didn't have food. And I told my son, my boys this, and they couldn't believe it. We didn't have food. And if there was no food and you are starving, you take the dry dirt. We were told by the other woman, take the dry dirt. It will make you feel thirsty, and you drink the water. Now your stomach is going to fill with water and the dirt, and you just keep on walking.
We did that. When I told my boys that, it was like, Oh my God, Mom. I'm like, Yep, you have that chance to call me a mother today because of those moment. So the walk was very long. But again, you are watching other children walking with you.
Some other children are dying as well. But you leave them there. You know, you dig a shallow grave. Put them there. You see mothers in pain. You see siblings in pain. But those who are still alive have hope to get up and join the group. And keep moving. You look at them and that motivates you and give you hope.
CHAKRABARTI: I can't stop looking at those first three words n your memoir, the title. About 'Don't Look Back.' Because and I hope you don't mind me saying I think that this is a belief or a way of being that is extremely common among immigrants to this country, especially immigrants who come from very, very difficult circumstances. I mean, my parents grew up in India. They didn't have the kinds of hardships, the war-torn hardships that you had to experience. They had some hardships of their own, though. And this resonates so powerfully with me because like, you know, my father, he lived the don't look back philosophy. He didn't even go back to India for 30 years after arriving in the United States.
And he often wouldn't tell me about stories of his growing up until later. And as a child of an immigrant American, I can tell you every time he did, like, give me a little glimpse as to what, you know, the times that his family was facing, possible starvation or they lost a home every now and then. I drank it almost like it was like holy water because it made my parents, so much more profoundly human to me.
Rather than just being a superhuman, hardworking immigrant parents, they became human beings to me when they told me these stories. And all of a sudden so much of who they were and how they behaved and the decisions they made and the attitudes they had about life made so much more sense to me. I really felt like a gift, the humanizing gift. And I'm wondering if that's how your sons felt when you shared these just profound things that had happened to you.
DENG: That is that is exactly how they felt because being a refugee and an immigrant, you literally walk to America or came to America. I did not walk to America. I came by plane ride. But coming to America, it's like you came with nothing but just papers. When I arrive, December 21st, 2000. All I had with me was just open toed shoes. A skirt and a sweater. The clothes I had on was given to me by UNACR in Kakuma Refugee Camp. That's it. And a little plastic bag with my documentation that I am a lost girl coming to America. That was it. That's all I had.
And so for my boys ... I'm very not too strict. But here is a perfect example. Those two are in high school. When I bought a house two years ago. I told them there is no room for a C in this house. And my oldest son. Well, Mom, you had an F in high school. And I hope I can say this because this was the truth. I told both of them. I said your mom also had a chance to be a substance abuse. I could have been a drug addict. But I'm not. I could have been a prostitute, for God's sake. But I'm not. I say my F was the F of faith. Faith was what F stand for, F was not a F for failure. [
And my boys sit down and they say, Mom, we are sorry. And I say, No, things are going to happen. And if you happen to have a C, talk to me. We will find a way to get this done. But what I meant by saying there is no room for a C in this house. You have me to provide food, house, shoes, everything that no one have ever provide to me when I came to this country. You have me. I have that, whether that means I have to work four jobs, two job. I will provide that for you. And I'm also providing everything for my siblings back in Kakuma refugee camp that I have. So now when you say Don't look back, that title is for every immigrant in this country. That is true. Because you come here and you work so hard. So that you don't go back to that rock bottom, because I know what that feel. So when I told my children my past. They now understand why a mom have to work so hard 13 hours a day, 14 hours a day, because I know what I feel like to go to bed hungry, to go to bed with no food. Go to bed with nothing but hope. I don't want my children to have that life.
CHAKRABARTI: So now they understand it, you know, relieving myself and letting them know what I have been through. It brought us together. So, yes, life of a refugee here in America. That title represents that. ... I am American. I got my citizenship. I work myself from zero ... class to middle class. And I'm proud of that. So being an immigrant. A refugee that don't look back. Title do represent that. But that goes to everyone in American. You know, I have friends that are American that went through tough time as well. But when they read this book. It inspired them.
CHAKRABARTI: I can say with total certainty that the gift that you've given your sons by telling them about your life will benefit them every single day of the rest of their lives. Because I'm speaking from experience here. They will make decisions in our lives. They will have tough times in their lives. They'll have tough moments, you know, as we all do, just existing, etc. And something, a part of one of your stories will come to their minds and they will remember, and it will help guide them in that moment in their lives. It will continue to inspire them and drive them and carry them down whatever paths they travel. I can guarantee that. You've done a profound thing as a mother.
Every single day, I'm well into my adulthood now, but especially when I was a teenager learning some of these stories. And then in my young adulthood, they were when I was trying to make difficult decisions in my life. Those stories from my parents are the things that came to mind. And they were the guide, you know, they were the light that you talked about earlier. It was like their version of giving that light to me. And I know that you've done that for your sons.
DENG: Thank you so much, Meghna. Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: That light glows so fiercely within you. I'm wondering if you can just bless us, if I can put it that way, with one or two more moments of your journey. Because, you know, you talked about coming to America, but getting here was a huge challenge, right? You were in that Kenyan refugee camp for nine years, approximately. And then as all people who are applying for refugee status have to do, you had to make your case. You had to make your case to why you should be allowed into the United States. What did you say?
DENG: I was a nervous wreck, you know, because when we got that, we had to rehearse. ... We were rehearsing. Me and some other friends. But at that moment. I had a chance to sit right across. Interpreter was there. And this guy, this gentleman, he asked me a question. Why do you want to go to America? And I'm sitting there and I'm like. With all this other question and everything, everybody wanted me to say, I'm going to be me. I'm going to tell the truth of how I feel because I'm tired. I'm giving up my mom. I don't think she's alive anymore. I don't think my uncle ... my aunt. And my father. I am here in the world alone. It's just me and my uncle. That's it. So why should I just say something else?
So this is what I told him. I said I want life. And the interpreter told this gentleman, she says she wants life. What do you mean by that? You don't have life here? And I told him, I said, I am breathing. As you can see, I'm alive. But this is not life here, in Kakuma refugee camp. What we have here is hope. To wake up tomorrow is hope. That's all we have is hope for tomorrow. And that is not life. I want life. And that's how he granted me a chance to come to America.
... There were more challenges after I came to America. After I came to the U.S. I attempted a suicide coming to America, something that I had never thought when I was in the refugee camp, because death was all over the place in the refugee camp. Again, like I said, Kakuma refugee camp. There was not a life. There was hope to live. To wake up in the morning. But when I came to America, I felt so alone. I did not know how to speak English. So somebody else start taking advantage of me because he knew I was not going to be able to speak up. So I was being silent in the apartment. I was told to be quiet. If I speak up with the little English I knew, I was going to get deported.
So I knew death was very far from me, so I have given up. I felt so alone in this great nation. I do not know how to speak English, how to express my feeling. It was only me. And that's something that the refugee, those who came, who come to this great nation not knowing how to speak English. Those are the challenges that we face. Those are the challenges that I did faith. But again, my colleague, my grandmother were able to show up when life left me with nothing but two things, a rope and the knife. My grandmother showed up and reminded me of how strong I was. So here I am today.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to be clear about what you're saying, though, that, you know, for anyone who thinks that once someone is granted refugee status and they come to this country and all of a sudden, it's easy living. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, what you're saying, and you write about it in heartbreaking detail in the book is when you came to the United States, you were abused, sexually assaulted, manipulated by actually also someone who, if I remember correctly, professed to be a man of faith as well.
And it's even from all that that you had to continue to work and build your new life here. You know, we only have a couple of minutes left. And I do hope people read your book because there's so much to your story and the lessons that you carry with you. But in the spirit of your grandmother, I'm wondering if for the last little bit of this show, if you might look ahead with me. What do you want next in your life and in your son's life?
DENG: What I would love to do next is be a motivational speaker. When the idea of putting my memoir and a book came up. A lot of people encouraged me to do the TED talk, but I wanted to hold on to that because I wanted people to have the book in front of them. And now my memoir is out there.
So my next is to encourage people, empower people. And I know I'm capable of that. So being a motivational speaker as my next one. You know, I'm always a big dreamer. You know, I'm hoping that somebody out there is going to pick up 'Don't Look Back' and say, you know what? This can be a movie.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, and also regarding your sons, I know that you wish and hope and dream many things for them. And I hope they accomplish and live all of your dreams for them. But for now, even just being young boys and experiencing all of the joys and challenges that a healthy and safe life have to offer our youth. I wish that for them.
This program aired on December 19, 2022.