TWO LOST BOYS OF SUDAN COMING TO SAN PEDRO HIGH TO TALK OF THEIR EXPERIENCE ESCAPING DEATH: THEY WILL COME WITH THE C0-AUTHOR OF “THEY POURED FIRE ON US FROM THE SKY”THAT TELLS THEIR AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TALE: THE EVENT WILL BE FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC THIS COMING WEDNESDAY
ONE SAN PEDRO HIGH TEACHER SAYS THE BOOK AND THE BOYS CHANGED HER LIFE AND THAT OF MANY OF HER STUDENTS
“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” an African Proverb used in the book: They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.
By Diana L. Chapman
I sat up with my head buried in the book.
Deja vu shivered up and down my spine, as though I was reading the Diary of Anne Frank all over again – a book that rocked the world once Anne’s father, who lost his family to the Holocaust, discovered his daughter’s diary and published it after World War II.
“They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky,” – an autobiographical telling of three Lost Sudan boy’s stories hurts, but is one of the most unforgettable, heart wrenching, culturally provocative books I’ve ever read in my life -- one all of us should read.
I learned. I laughed. I cried. Two of the Lost Boys in this book will be here next week at San Pedro High to share their stories along with the woman who helped them author it, Judy Bernstein. The life-changing event is open to the public in the school’s auditorium from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. and again from 6 to 7 p.m. Nov. 18.
As I absorbed the book, I couldn’t help but feel the stories of Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak (Alepho and Benjamin will come to the school) seemed eerily similar in so many ways to Anne’s. While it’s dressed in completely different attire of a new time, another country and a wildly different culture, the underpinnings remained the same – that of mass genocide, one group trying to scrub the world away or obliterate another group of innocent people due to their race, religion or ethnicity.
About two million people died and five million were displaced in Sudan’s Civil War, which launched the ugly journey of the Lost Boys. Some 27,000 boys, as young as five, were forced to criss-cross the desert to head for refugee camps. More than half died, some from being picked off in the middle of the night by lions and hyenas. Others died from illness and lack of food.
The 1,000 mile journey – which trekked through Sudan’s desert to reach for Ethiopia and Kenya began in the early 1980s when Northern government troops attacked and razed the boy’s villages, killed their parents and raped, killed or enslaved their sisters. During the attacks, many of the boys were out guarding their families herds – and escaped the bloodshed, at least at that moment.
Once, I picked up the book, I was entranced with learning about their culture during more peaceful, happier times.
Benson describes living in a small, mudded hut and explained family riches stemmed from the number of cattle your father owned.
“I would hear the echoes of the ground horn bill howling and weaver birds singing…” he wrote. “I would stand under the acacia trees and watch the giraffes curl their black tongues around the leaves above.”
Then the pastoral village life turned to a whirlwind of black chaos and destruction when the troops decided to cleanse the southern villages.
It was the fault of a San Pedro High English teacher, Tobey Shulman, that I was reading this book “that changed,” her life, she said, when she announced at Back to School Night that not only would her students read it -- more importantly, they’d be meeting Benjamin and Alephonsion. This is their third trip to the school and this time, Shulman decided to offer it up to the public as one way “to help humanity.” The book’s sales proceeds go to the boys.
The three boys came from villages where most the men were at least six feet tall, so when Shulman and her students spotted Benjamin for the first time – they knew instantly it was him.
“When Benjamin came, all of us were just floored,” the teacher explained, whose husband knew author “Jud—eee,” as the Sudan boys call her, from a writing group. “It changed my life. My girls were screaming: “There’s Benjamin. They wanted to hug him and hold his hands. They were all crying.
“The whole experience is just altering. One of my kids, Timothy Do, wanted to start an “End to Genocide Club” and did it.” At last, she said, Do settled down from a class joker to find he had a purpose in life.
What it taught her students overall, she continued, was the absolute importance of education. The Sudan boys proved that in their relentless journey to survive, some of whom later came to the United States through the United Nations to pick up the pieces of their lives, had a fierce respect for education and called it “their mother,” Shulman said.
“They walked 1,000 miles and they brought their books,” Shulman explained, with tears in her eyes. “They brought their Bible.”
Like hundreds of other boys, these three escaped the Muslim-run government death squads who slaughtered thousands. This led to the boys’ remarkable journey along with hundreds of others -- some boys as young as five being taken care of by 11-year-olds -- to trek across the desert, snaking past feeding lions, through crocodile-infested rivers to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
The co-author – who insists the boys are the true authors and she just guided them -- and I tried to reach each other several times, but have yet to connect. She, however, has spent much time helping the boys – actually now young men in their early 20s -- resettle in the United States. The author hooked up with them when a San Diego caseworker asked if she could mentor them when they first arrived.
At first, she was a bit uneasy about the mentoring , but that vanished once she met them, she said in her foreward, and they became “near and dear” to her and her family.
Bernstein did an extraordinary job guiding these boys to tell their stories and made me laugh in her foreword. Once she and her son, Cliff, who was 12 at the time, took the boys to shop for pants at a Walmart.
When they got out at the parking lot, she wrote in the foreword: “Benson says: “Cars stand here like a cattle in a cattle camp,” and when she warns them the parking lots are dangerous Benson again says: “It is like when walking among the cows. One must use caution. A cow may swing her head very, very fast to get a fly. The horns, very long, can injure a boy.”
When “Jud….eee” asks why they don’t remove the horns, he explains: “Cows need the horns to fight lions.”
As a mother who mentors students in writing, I shuddered when the author visited the boys in their sparse apartment one morning and Benson and Alepho hand her some composition paper saying: “These are the stories we wrote…they are for you.”
What a gift to cherish!
From then on, the author mentored them, helped them pull together the book – and still helps them to this day. The proceeds from book sales go to the boys.
“I begin to dream,” she writes, “that if we can weave their stories into a tapestry and if we’re granted a great stroke of luck, the resulting book might pay for some tuition and they can fulfill their dreams of getting an education.”
By attending the event, where the books will be sold, it’s a dream we can all help make come true.