Tales from the Departure Lounge

#35 Nhial Deng (A Refugee Story)

March 17, 2024 Andy Plant & Nick Cuthbert Season 3 Episode 35
Tales from the Departure Lounge
#35 Nhial Deng (A Refugee Story)
Show Notes Transcript

A story of hope. At age 11 Nhial was separated from his family when armed militia attacked his village in Ethiopia that borders South Sudan. He fled to Kukama Refugee Camp in Kenya, a settlement over over 300,000 displaced people, where he found solace in school and pursued his dream of becoming a journalist. By reaching out to the world on the airwaves, he was not only reunited with his family but he managed to secure a scholarship to study in Canada and travel the world as a UN Refugess Youth Peace Ambassador. 

Nhial joins the TFTDL crew to talk about a world of inequality and conflict, the great potential of youth and why you should try a beaver's tail when in Canada! 

Final boarding call: The Gambella region, Ethiopia 

Not to be missed! This inspirational student story is brought to you in partnership with The Ambassador Platform, a leading peer-to-peer marketing and recruitment platform that connects your current students to prospective students for honest advice. Check out www.theambassadorplatform.com 

Tales from the Departure Lounge is a Type Nine production for The PIE www.thepienews.com

Andy:

What I'll do is I'll say welcome to the show and then you can say whatever you like

Nick:

it's too complicated.. Welcome to Tales from the Departure Lounge. This is a podcast about travel for business, for pleasure, or for study. My name's Nick and I'm joined by my co-pilot, Andy. And together we're gonna be talking to some amazing guests about how travel has transformed their. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the journey. Welcome to the podcast.

Andy:

Today we're joined by Neil Deng. He is a student at Huron University College in London, in Canada. He is part of the Refugees Youth Peace Ambassadors Initiative and he grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Nick:

We hear about refugees in the news all the time. We don't really understand their situation.

Andy:

and I came off the back of this conversation with him just thinking, wow, this is. The why of international education. This is transforms someone's life and he has escaped an awful situation through educating himself and giving other people hope.

Nick:

Yeah. We've just finished recording with him. And to be honest, I'm in a little bit of shock. Armed militia attacked his village and he was separated from his father their only contact with the outside world was a wireless radio. And his father said to him, find me through the radio. And then fast forward four years later, he's. become a journalist, a commentator on life in a refugee camp, and his dad hears the story. He actually finds his dad through the radio.

Andy:

It's really, really special. We cover an awful lot He talks about the very basic things that you need to survive. To the life that he has now in Canada,

Nick:

his teacher was a lady called Mary Maker, who was one of the first Sudanese refugees to get a scholarship to the US from that refugee camp. and then she created this butterfly effect where she would go back. And teach in the camps and secure more scholarships. And Neil was one of those scholars. Escaping the camp fire education. the average time in a refugee camp was 17 years.

Andy:

mean, if you want a story of hope, then you should listen to this episode. He's the changemaker who grew up in a refugee camp dreaming of becoming a journalist. From escaping conflict to going full circle and giving hope to other young people. Let's get some tales from the Departure Lounge from Neil Deng.

Nhial:

I came out of my house with my dad and, that is when I saw my entire village disappearing in front of me, houses being burned down, gunshots, people running up and down, My dad used to tell me school is the only way to achieve your dreams. It was a place where I could sit down and dream about a glowing future again. It was a place where I was able to find solace, find hope. there's always that question why do we live in a world where there's so much on one side and there's little nothing on the other side? I never imagined that one day I would be in that, situation or even become a refugee he told me, Find me on the radio find me on the radio.

Nick:

So before we get into the episode, a quick word about our latest sponsor. Most of our listeners spend a lot of time traveling the world, staying in hotels or apartments, often where they haven't stayed before. I don't know about you, but whenever I'm choosing a hotel, I like to check out online reviews, or even better, ask friends or colleagues for recommendations. International students face the same uncertainty with their study choices, but the investment that they're making is much greater than the price of a hotel room. They'll be investing in that study destination for years. This is where the Ambassador Platform helps your prospective students. It links them up with your current students to receive honest, personalized advice and to answer any questions that they have. This is a direct and trusted source of information. It provides instant reassurance for students and improved conversion for your university. And it's not just messaging. Your ambassadors can generate their own content and videos to share, showing prospective students from anywhere on the planet what life is really like at your institution. And it gives them confidence and reassurance about their decisions. we're really excited to have teamed up with the Ambassador Platform to bring you some tales from the Departure Lounge with real students and graduates, to show you how powerful the student voice can be. So to find out more about this highly impactful peer to peer platform, or to book a demo with one of the friendly TAP team, please visit the link in the episode notes or go to the ambassadorplatform. com.

now let's get on with the episode

Andy:

Neil, welcome to the show. It's great to have you on.

Nhial:

Thank you so much for having me. Good to be here.

Andy:

The first question we always ask our guests is if you could take our listeners anywhere in the world, where would it be and why,

Nhial:

I would take listeners to a small village in Ethiopia, where I grew up. it was, in the Gambela region, which is closer to the South Sudan border. and my dad moved there, during the first Sudanese Civil War, so I was born there. It was a very small village where I used to go to school under a small tree. and I would, come back from school, in the afternoon, often I would find my dad, sitting by his, house listening to the radio and I'd just come and join him and listening to the radio and try to find out what is happening around the world, what is happening back home in South Sudan, whenever I'm not listening to the radio, it would be, the neighborhood playing with kids, in the nearby field, or, going, to the nearby river, it was a beautiful childhood.

Andy:

What was the name of the village?

Nhial:

it was call it time. It was a small village by the Nile. our houses were made of mud bricks and ash roofs. From nearby, bushes. I remember, waking up in the morning breeze from the nearby river, people are going, to fetch water from the river to start cooking. I went to school under a small tree, we'd go there sing songs about our culture, about our community. Or play football in the field. What make it so beautiful was that people are so close together everyone knew everyone

Andy:

what did your dad do? He sounds like he was a curious man. He was interested in the world.

Nhial:

My dad did so many things. I feel like he could do anything. He could, get his hands on. and all he wanted to do was to give me a good education, because my dad education was interrupted by the conflict back home in South Sudan. so he never really had a chance to finish his school. He spent a lot of time trying to tell me stories about back home in South Sudan, to give me that sense of, belonging to a country I've never been to. my dad radio introduced me to the world outside my village. I dream of becoming a journalist one day to tell the stories of my village on my father radio.

Andy:

You been back to that village since your childhood?

Nhial:

No. So I left the village in 2010 when it was attacked by a militia group and I've never been back there. One morning, I was woken up by gunshot. My dad came to me and told me, I have to move out of the house. And I was like, what's going on? he told me, you are moving to a different place. This village is no longer safe. hearing gunshot, hearing people screaming outside. I came out of my house with my dad and, and, that is when I saw my entire village disappearing in front of me, houses being burned down, gunshots, people running up and down, I saw someone bleeding on the ground. and my dad told me, it's no longer safe here. he pointed me toward a small group of people and told me that I should join them and, find our way to safety. it was, children and some few men, and we find our way to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

Andy:

how long was that journey

Nhial:

it took us two weeks. we ride on the back of a truck for a bit and then we walk, none of us has a passport or visa to enter Kenya, so we had to be smuggle into Kenya, and find our way, to reception center where we're picked by the UN and brought to Kakuma refugee camp.

Nick:

and you were completely separated from your father.

Nhial:

Yes, I was separated from my father as well as from my mom and my two younger siblings. I actually, lost contact with my family, for four years

Nick:

How old were you

Nhial:

I was 11 years old. Seeing those houses burning, seeing people I used to see every morning, smiling, going to their, daily routine, screaming and, and, trying to find a way to save tea. I never imagined that one day I would be in that, situation or even become a refugee

Nick:

Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, lots of these countries being torn apart by civil war that's been going on for decades now, at 11 years old, could you understand why it was happening?

Nhial:

I couldn't understand anything. I used to ask my dad, why is all this happening? And I don't think he never gave me like a real reason as to why there was conflict. It was just a very messed up situation where everyone was angry at everyone. They just want to go and crush villages and all of that. it was very difficult to understand,

Andy:

were you just scared or Were you angry?

Nhial:

I still remember that moment when I come out of my house with my dad and just facing everything that was happening outside. I felt like my entire body was just stuffed completely. Like I couldn't feel, my heart, beating. I couldn't, even feel my feet on the ground. Um, And I was very scared when my dad told me that I'm moving out of the village. And I asked him, dad, are you coming with me? And he was like, no. And I was like, when, will I ever had a chance to see you again? and my dad, saw that I was very scared. So he told me, Oh, you can go and achieve your dreaming of becoming a journalist and Find me on the radio find me on the radio.

Nick:

So tell us a bit about is that how I'm saying, kookumai,

Nhial:

Kakuma. Kakuma refugee? Yeah.

Nick:

in Kenya. This is huge. Isn't it? This is nearly half a million refugees

Nhial:

It's very, very big. The last time I checked, I think it was around 300, 000. The population there is super, super huge. At some point I was staying with 18 people in one tiny compound. You first go to a reception center, where your fingerprint will be taken, they asked me where are my parents. I explained to them, what happened in my village. So I was put up with a foster family that I stayed with until I was 18. And I think the turning point for me was when I started going to school in the refugee camp I felt like, I still have an opportunity to make it in life. My dad used to tell me school is the only way to achieve your dreams. It was a place where I could sit down and dream about a glowing future again. It was a place where I was able to find solace, find hope.

For our listeners. Can you explain the dangers or challenges living in a refugee camp?

Nhial:

The welfare program provide a monthly ration, which wasn't enough. you could, have that for two weeks and then you're done. for the next two weeks, you have to figure out how to survive. we used to have, a community water, tap where the water run for an hour and you go there, fish water, save your fish, 20 liters of water. That is all you have for a day until tomorrow. That's what you have for your laundry. That's what you have for cooking. That's what you have for shower and all of that. Sometimes you even struggle with, having enough clothes. If you have one pair of pants and a shirt, you're all good for that. Maybe, one pair of shoes. Many kids in the refugee camp, do not have their parents or relatives around. the last time I checked, the average number of years that someone is spending in the refugee camp is over 17.

Andy:

So you're in the camp, you're going to school. it's a huge place full of refugees. What's your route out?

Nhial:

People ask themselves, when would I ever make it out there are no universities there. So when you finish high school, it's over for you. I always feel like everything has come to an end because there's no way out, will I ever have a chance to get out of the refugee camp? Will I ever have a chance to see my family again? And there's a question that you'll never find answers to I remember going to my English teacher and asking how can I learn good English because my dad told me if you want to be a journalist, you need to learn good English. And my dream was, go to the UK one day and work for BBC. Uh, I created a journalism club where we used to go around the school with my friends, and, pretend we're in a small studio. I would go hide behind the house and pretend that I'm broadcasting news in a news studio. I would say that is how I learned my English actually, just, listening to news broadcasters, trying to cram everything they said, and you know, practicing that for an entire week and then going to my teacher and asking, what does this word mean? Um, uh, in high school, start getting involved in community work. Uh, one day I asked my friend, Hey, why didn't we bring a few chairs together and have a storytelling circle and just escape the challenging life of the camp for a minute. I started creating social media accounts. I started with Twitter and I just go there and share stories. And that's how my name is start going around and people start asking me to speak on different sessions, to travel around the world and join different conferences, while I was still living in the refugee camp. And BBC came across the project. They reached out to me and asked me about it. I talk a bit about life in the refugee camp during COVID, I talk about my own story, and and my dad was able to watch that interview. He was very happy. He told me, oh, you made it on BBC,

Andy:

what an amazing story.

Nhial:

It was after that session that I said, okay, I now need to apply for scholarships and that's how I find myself in Canada,

Nick:

you Said earlier that when you were separated your dad said, become a journalist and find me on the radio.

Nhial:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He say that.

Nick:

And you made it happen. It actually came true.

Nhial:

Yeah. Yeah.

Nick:

so cool.

Andy:

the next section of the podcast is called Any Laptops, Liquids, or Sharp Objects. This is where we ask our guests what they would take with them if they were going travelling, or any sort of traveller's wisdom they might have to pass on.

Nhial:

So I say all is my laptop. that is one thing I less have in traveling. My iPod and, my headphone. I feel like whenever I have those, I'm all set.

Nick:

You live in Canada now, in a very affluent country,

Nhial:

Yeah.

Nick:

You've come from a place of having nothing and rationing the basic things like food and clothing. What's your view on material things?

Nhial:

I think at one point, I feel like it's good to be able to have the opportunity to have, what you need in life, um, to be able to have the opportunity to go to school, get a college degree to be able to work, how to living. And then whenever I think about my refugee camp, I think about the world, you know, there's so many people around the world today who are suffering, and there's always that question why do we live in a world where there's so much on one side and there's little nothing on the other side? When I came to Canada, I used to struggle a lot with even, let's say, going to my university capital and, seeing so much food there. And I remember when the refugee camp would have been a struggle trying to find food. You've got one meal a day. And it just showed the inequality in the world. When there's a hunger crisis, it's because it's not being divided equally. I remember when I was a kid in Kakuma, I went to watch this American, high school movie, and I saw this kid skateboarding to school every morning. I was like, one day I'll try this. So I came to Canada and I was just going to my dorm and my neighbor next door, uh, at a skateboard and I asked, can I try that? I jump on it for so many times. The next day I got my skateboard and I spent so many times, so much time skateboarding or even, you know, going skydiving. I saw it in a movie. So I was like, Oh my goodness, I'm jumping on a plane one day. now I'm relieving my childhood that conflict stopped for me. I wish every kid in my refugee camp have that opportunity. They have so much potential in them and not just my refugee camp. I've been able to travel to so many other refugee camps in the region with the UN over the last one year. And it's always the same stories. Kids have so many dreams and just little that they have to make those dreams a reality.

Andy:

Must eat like toast! What about now you're an international man of mystery, you're flying around the world telling your story, what things that have happened on your travels?

Nhial:

Oh, wow. Um, The food, I make fun to my friends back in Kenya that, you know, you guys are good because the food in Kenya is very good compared to what I have in the West. The food there tastes very boring.

Andy:

Tim Hortons, come on!

Nhial:

Tim Hortons is good, but, but It's just a snack that tastes good there. Um, whenever you try anything else, um, I always feel like I want to find good food when I go to either, you know, Asian or Caribbean or African restaurant. And there's not a lot of them here. And that is also one thing I do whenever I travel, I find around where the African, restaurant and places where I can make good food. At the moment, I just moved to Canada. Uh, my, my first week, oh my goodness, I was like, damn, this is not going to work. do I have to start cooking myself African food or, or I was, because like back home food was more of spices, like people focus on the taste. If it doesn't taste good, no, your food is trash. Here I feel like people look into things like calories and, and, and, this and that. Um, so it's, it's kind of like different making of the food. Um, so that is a thing. Um, yeah,

Nick:

It's, it's a Canadian thing.

Nhial:

I love it. Oh my goodness. It's so good. Yeah, whenever I see it. So sometimes they, you know, they come around my university for a day or two. Whenever I see them like 10. Life is good today. I love it.

Nick:

Describe it for our audience who might not understand what we're talking about.

Nhial:

How do I describe it? So I don't think I'd call it a bread. Um, but it's,

Nick:

It's a doughnut.

Nhial:

yeah. Maybe a donut, but it's a bit bigger than a donut, like the, than the regular donuts. And they oftentimes, I love it when they have, when they put the sugar around it and it taste so, so good. Um, I, I, maybe that is one sweet thing in Canada,

Nick:

yeah, a big flat doughnut with loads of sugar like a beaver's tail

Andy:

I actually thought you were talking about a beaver's tail then. Honestly. But it's a donut. We're okay. It's not actually a beaver's tail.

Nick:

You won a student prize of 100, 000. And you used that money to support kids back in the camp. Is that right?

Nhial:

Last year was awarded the global student prize is given to one student. Every year was made an impact on the life of your peers, on landing on society beyond. I used to love reading and writing a lot. I wish I had access to so many books back in the refugee camp. and now we're working on, setting up this community and leadership center for young people. We will have a library, have a computer lab, and hopefully connecting the world with Kakuma as well and making people know more about my hometown.

Andy:

The next section, which is what's the purpose of your visit? So why do you do what you do? Why are you studying what you're studying? What's the plans for the future?

Nhial:

My dream has transitioned so many times. First it was the journalism thing. And then when I started to do community work and doing activism and advocacy, especially, can I bring peace to my home country, South Sudan? So I'm actually currently studying, global studies. I'm doing a minor in media information and technoculture. I have been,, part of many, different youth movement over the last two years, three years, I just feel like there's so much potential in young people, driving us towards a more hopeful, brighter, and just future. I was just in Nairobi, Kenya. three weeks ago where I spoke to a group of 700 high school students at the UN, model there. Uh, and I do all this speaking around the world,, at US universities, and high schools, and here in Canada, in Europe. I'm planning to go to grad school after my undergrad. I'm now in my third year. Um, then after that, we'll see where life takes me.

We should talk about Mary maker here. She was also a child refugee in Kakuma and she was one of the first to get a scholarship from that camp to go and study in the U S. And having done that and done very well. She's then dedicated the time to improving schools in the refugee camps, And people should check out some of the talks she's done for TEDx and, uh, the UN refugee agency, things like how to refugees when and how you can turn, tears into passion for peace.

Nhial:

Yes, and actually, the funny thing is that Mere was my teacher. Many kids in the refugee camp, when they see me, when they see Mary, when they see us go back to the camp, there's always that image in their mind, that Niall was here, Mary was here. If they couldn't make it out of the refugee camp, I can also make it out of the refugee camp. And it just gives them hope, which, which I honestly, when I look at Kakuma Refugee Camp, I think hope is one powerful tool that you need to make it out of that place. Myself and Mary, we're trying to go around the world telling people that many kids can transform their life and even achieve many better things than myself. not even the global student prize, maybe someone will win the Nobel peace prize in a year or two, or 10 years down the line.

Andy:

I saw in your email signature, it says Ubuntu. I am because you are. What does that mean to you?

Nhial:

Ah, so Ubuntu is an African proverb, meaning I'm because you are. The sense of community that I grew up with, every day in Kakuma refugee camp in my village was incredible. People have nothing, they share everything they have. They share, the small food they had, they share, the small joy they had, they share sadness together. and I just feel like we live in a world where we're so interconnected and so interdependent on one another. That sense of community around us is very, very crucial. That is basically what Ubuntu means, that we need each other. And that, today who I am because of the community where I grew up.

Andy:

it takes a village to raise a child. The last section of the podcast is called Anything to Declare, and this is a free space for you to talk about whatever you'd like to.

Nhial:

Are there any prompts?

Nick:

If you had a magic wand and you had one wish, what would it be?

Nhial:

I think if I had a magic and they could do one thing in the world, it would just be stopping conflict. I think conflict disrupts life, it disrupts dreams, it disrupts hope. that is one thing I would stop. I've said this many times about the power of education as a tool that could help kids be able to build a better future for themselves and be able to achieve a more open, brighter future, but also be able to contribute to building the world that we all want, the world that we all want to live in. And oftentimes I feel like refugees are left out of that conversation. They're seen more of as refugees. victim as, as you say, but I think they also solution makers, they design solutions and they often even a refugee can try to find. Uh, solution to their own challenges. Even before big international organization come in, the work that I do there, with the leadership and community center is to basically create a space for young people, to come together, to be happy, to connect, to learn, And not fully connect the world with Kakuma. And just trying to find ways for young people there to be able to have a safe space where they can dream big and where they can look toward a more brighter future. We live in a world where today there are over a million displaced people, mostly internally displaced people, by different conflict all around the world. and if you want to learn more about the refugees, don't go to the media, Don't go to listen to what a politician would say, don't even go to the UN website to look at what refugees are. Go to your next door neighbor who is a refugee, you talk to people who have just come from a different country, over a cup of coffee, listen to them. I feel like there's so many things that will connect you with that person than what you hear about them being able to, you know, uh, and how they're being portrayed by the media or the journalists So let's tell people that, Learn about refugees from refugees.

Nick:

I love that.

Andy:

Perfect. And I think you're the epitome of this, you had a dream when you were younger. You wanted get into journalism. You talked about that with your dad. if you have a dream, you're halfway there. That's what people say, right? If you can give that dream to other young people, that's a hell of a gift.

Nhial:

And it goes a long way. And that is what I see whenever I go back and talk to kids about my own story, and they're like, yeah, I can also make it, I can become a pilot, I can become a teacher, I can become a doctor, I can become this and that, I can be an engineer, and so many things.

Andy:

Neil, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It's been wonderful to have you on.

Nhial:

Thank you so much for having me. So very glad being part of these incredible conversations.

Nick:

Hello everyone. Thank you so much for listening. As always I want to say a massive thank you to the ambassador platform for making us focus on these incredible students and graduates and telling their stories. I hope you're enjoying this series.

We have a new social media campaign. People are sending us their travel pictures and we're putting them all up online. Or you can send them to as sick bag tales from the departure lounge.com.

Nick:

Uh, it's really good to be back. and Andy's made a jingle to celebrate. Safe travels.

Andy:

Welcome back, welcome back. Hi mum. Yeah, my wife, thanks, good to be home. Nah, jet lag's okay actually, just a bit tired. Oh, don't kiss me in public. What's for tea anyway?

Nick:

Tales from the Departure Lounge is a type nine production for the pie.