By Peggy Reisser | Photo by Adam Brimer
When the civil war in Sudan came to Deng Maluk’s village in 1987, the then-8-year-old fled and found himself alone, separated from his family.
Maluk, who graduated from the UT Health Science Center in 2015, returned home to Sudan in 2016 for the first time since he ran away in terror. After 18 hours on a plane, a night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a few days in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, he finally arrived in Bor Town, his home village. “My dad was sitting under a tree waiting for me,” he says.
Maluk was once among the more than 20,000 boys displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War that began in 1983 and eventually split the country into Sudan and South Sudan. Aid workers in refugee camps dubbed them the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“We were little kids, and they asked us, ‘Where are you going?’ We didn’t know,” Maluk says. “They said, ‘These are lost boys.’”
Through faith and perseverance, the now-37-year-old is lost no more.
After earning a bachelor of science degree in medical laboratory science, he now works the third shift in the chemistry and hematology departments at Erlanger Baroness Hospital in Chattanooga.
When militia members attacked his village, Maluk, his family and neighbors fled.
“It was terrible,” he says. “My parents ran, and I ran to a different place with other people. The village burned down.”
With the family scattered into the bush, Maluk joined a group of boys and a few adults and began weeks of walking to try to find safety. His first journey ended in Ethiopia.
“We didn’t have anywhere to stay,” he says. “We had to stay three months under the trees, until the United Nations came to help us.”
Unable to communicate with his parents or siblings, Maluk assumed they all were dead.
Living on his own, he made his way to Kenya by 1992. While living in the refugee camp, he discovered from talking to other refugees that his family was alive, though he had no way to communicate with them. He remained in the camp until 2001, when relief workers advised him he would go to America.
“I was thinking when I came to America I would go to school, and when I finished it, I would work and then be independent,” Maluk says.
World Relief International brought him to Nashville. At age 21, Maluk was alone in his new country with little English and no work. “From there, I realized that everything is on my shoulders, and I have to take responsibility,” he says.
He went to work in a hotel, studied English and earned a GED. He paid for community college classes at Volunteer State and Columbia State with grants and the money he earned. He became an American citizen in 2007. The next year, he moved to Murfreesboro to attend Middle Tennessee State University. He graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
But, even with a diploma in hand, he could not find a job.
Maluk researched educational and career opportunities. Becoming a medical laboratory scientist seemed like a good option. It would take two years and help him find a job without starting over in a new field. He began classes at UTHSC in August 2013 and graduated in May 2015. The young man who once attended school under a tree in his village by the Nile now had two degrees.
Kathy Kenwright, chair of the UTHSC department of clinical laboratory sciences, said Maluk—always cheerful, respectful and very grateful for the opportunities that UTHSC offered—was a welcome addition to the student body.
“Deng taught us all to appreciate so many things that we take for granted in the U.S.,” she says.
At his graduation, Maluk received the Alice Scott Hitt Award, which goes to a student who shows outstanding personal and professional characteristics.
Maluk had always wanted to return to Bor Town to see his family once more. He planned to go after graduation and asked his new employer for time to make the journey.
He traveled home in December 2016 and returned to Chattanooga in May 2017.
“When I got to the airport, my brother was there waiting for me,” Maluk says. “He took me home, and my sister was there. I didn’t even know how she looked. I kind of recognized her. I called her by her name, and she just broke down. She cried.”
His mother was at church.
“My mom, she kept saying that she would always go to church and pray that I would come,” he says.
There was a big party for the lost son’s return home. “My dad got a bull, and they slaughtered the bull, and the village came together,” Maluk says.
The trip also resulted in another cause for celebration—Maluk’s wedding.
“This is how you live in this life. You have to be organized, and you have to keep up your dream and line it up,” he says. “When I went to college, I knew after I graduated, I have to have a family. I’m kind of putting my steps in order and going step by step.”
After his long absence, he did not know any women in his village. Custom demanded the approval not only of the bride but of both families. It also required a hefty dowry from the groom to the bride’s family.
He met 20-year-old Juoi, received everyone’s approval and purchased 80 to 90 cows for the gift. The wedding took place March 15. For now, Juoi lives in Bor Town with Maluk’s family. They talk on the phone often, and Maluk is deep in the documentation process to bring her to the United States.
“I’m working a lot of overtime now,” he says. “I want to bring her here.”
Maluk knows that life does not always go according to plan. Still, he is optimistic. “I just proceed and persevere and keep doing what I’m doing. Once you give up, you fail.”
It’s that attitude that generates respect on the job.
“He is highly regarded by all of the laboratory staff for his commitment to his job, his love of his two countries, South Sudan and the United States, and his great sense of humor,” says his Erlanger supervisor Joy Partin. “As Deng’s manager, I was thrilled that he had the opportunity to return home to his family after so many years. He had many great stories to tell us.”
The emotional journey home reinforced his confidence in the future.
“I was overjoyed because, when I went to see my parents, and I see some of my relatives, people were really very welcoming,” he says. “You can see many people are still suffering about all the issues going on in Southern Sudan, but you still see smiling. It kind of really makes you be happy that people have a lot of hope, even if they don’t have all the things for life. They energized me to hope that the situation will improve.”