True resilience: One Man's Journey from South Sudan to American Airman

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Antoinette Gibson
  • CJTF-HOA Public Affairs
Two million people died, four million were displaced and thousands fled civil war, but by faith and perseverance, one "lost boy" who is now an American Airman returns home.

As a young boy at the age of 5, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Deng Pour, a survivor of the 1983-2006 Sudanese civil war lived through many years of near starvation and genocide, but he never gave up.

His life was filled with gun fire, attacks and hiding from village to village to stay alive. But one night, Sudanese government troops ambushed his village forcing him to flee from Sudan to Ethiopia.

"The thought of leaving never really crossed our mind until that night," Pour said. "My aunt and I left everything we had and headed for Ethiopia. My aunt told me my mom had to stay behind to take care of my grandmother, but little did I know that my mom had been actually captured."

Pour said they survived by eating grass and mud. They watched many men, women and children being killed. When he got tired, his aunt would carry him on her back as they walked miles at a time, ran from troops and avoided bombs dropped from planes.

After three months of unimaginable hardship, Pour and dozens of others arrived in Ethiopia to a refugee camp where they were safe but often had little to eat.
A year later, his mom joined them. They had food and really felt as if it was going to be home, he said.

"When I saw my mom, I was so happy. I just knew everything would be okay, and we would have a normal life," he said.

After three years, the Ethiopian government was overthrown. A civil war broke out causing them to flee back to war-torn Sudan.

"People kept saying, 'you have to leave; you have to leave.' We heard the gunfire get closer. We felt like it was life or death," Pour explained. "We knew the road ahead would be tough, but we had to go. My mom, uncle, cousins and I headed toward Sudan, and my aunt fled with others to Kenya."

About half of the young people who fled Ethiopia, more than 500, failed to complete the journey back to Sudan, Pour said. Some were shot, killed by wild animals, died of hunger, thirst, disease or utter exhaustion, and some died crossing the crocodile-infested Pibor River, he said. "But once again, I made it. I survived."

Pour said their home was not how they left it. Their village had burned down, and the livestock had been killed. They made due with hardly anything. One day a plane flew in to deliver aid to his country, and Pour and his cousin stood watching in amazement; but little did they know that it was their way "home."

Pour's uncle asked the pilot if he would take Pour and his cousin to Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya. His mom said she wanted a better life for them; so she sent them alone. At the refugee camp  the elders from their local village formed loose family groups and took care of them. Pour and thousands of other southern Sudanese children became known as the "lost boys of Sudan."

At the camp, they attend school and learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic. For the next five years, life got better.

"Sept. 17, 1999, is a day I will never forget. That was the day my aunt adopted me as her son and sent for me to come to the U.S.," said Pour with tears in his eyes.

Against all odds, Pour was on his way to the U.S.

At the age of 16 he could barely speak English and found himself below the academic standard, but he worked day and night to continue to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

Pour graduated high school and was accepted into Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky on a soccer scholarship, but it didn't take Pour long to realize he was wasting his time. Joining the Air Force was something he said he always wanted to do, but he was unable to because he didn't have a green card.

"I knew as soon as I got my green card that I would join the Air Force," Pour said.

In 2006, an Air Force recruiter traveled three hours to meet Pour at his home in Fergus Falls, Minn. The recruiter assured Pour he would do whatever he could to help him enlist in the military.

Pour could either wait a year for the job he wanted or go right away by leaving his specialty open. Without hesitation, Pour took the first available job to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

"Services was my first job, but once I was able to retrain, I cross trained into the chaplain corps. I knew this was where God called me to be."

Pour has been in the military for seven years with assignments at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. and Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. He has deployed to Kuwait, Afghanistan, and currently  Africa.

He said life hasn't always been easy since leaving his country, and when he was ready to give up, mentors such as Chief Master Sgt. Dayton Lowry reminded him there will always be better days.

"Chief, as well as many others, motivate me and the Air Force is a community where everyone wants to come and help," Pour said. "There is always a leader or mentor there when you are ready to give up. I have faced many road blocks in my life, but I've been reminded that if you are determined you can accomplish anything."

Pour is currently the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa religious affairs where he works in a variety of support roles; building morale amongst the combined forces as well as assisting other partner nation militaries improve their military chaplaincies.

"He is a valuable member to our team. With a past that is so rich in this region, he provides us with firsthand knowledge on customs and traditions with our partnering countries," said U.S. Navy Capt. Dana Reed, Director of Religious Affairs.

"My goal in Africa is simple: to make a difference, whether it's amongst my peers or in this country," Pour said. "As I was going through my struggles, many people went out of their way to help me... The Air Force is a way for me to give back, to serve my adopted country because I know I'm representing something greater than myself. The mission here at CJTF-HOA helps people, it helps my people.

For a long time Pour felt he was unable to tell his story, but "now I believe I can... because it may leave someone encouraged," he said.

Reed said Pour encouraged him. "He told me that his mother always used to tell him 'eyes are for looking forward. I only hope my children have that kind of resiliency."

Pours said his 25 year journey since leaving Sudan made him who he is today.

"I will always remember my journey; it is because of my journey I am where I am today; just a little faith, motivation and perseverance," Pour said.

The road taken wasn't easy for this airman. But this "lost boy" understands the importance of resiliency.