A civil war in Southern Sudan forced Deng Maluk to flee his home in 1987. He was 8 years old and alone.
Maluk, now an alumnus of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, returned home last year for the first time since he was a boy. After 18 hours on a plane, an overnight 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 said. The two had not been together in roughly 30 years.
Maluk was once among the more than 20,000 boys displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War that began in 1983. 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 said. “They said, ‘These are lost boys.’ ”
Through faith and perseverance, the 37-year-old has forged a bright future.
In May 2015, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in medical laboratory science from UTHSC. He works the third shift in the chemistry and hematology departments at Erlanger Baroness Hospital in Chattanooga.
The odyssey that took him across Africa, to the United States, and eventually back home began when militia attacked his village. Maluk, his family, and neighbors were forced to flee.
“It was terrible,” he said. “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 began weeks of walking in the company of a few adults to try to find safety. His journey ended in Ethiopia.
“We didn’t have anywhere to stay,” he said. “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 all were dead.
Living on his own, he made his way to Kenya by 1992, and remained there, until relief workers advised him to prepare to 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 said.
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 said.
He got a job in a hotel, took English classes, and earned his GED. He paid for community college classes at Volunteer State and Columbia State with grants and the money he made working. 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.
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 was accepted at UTHSC, began classes in August 2013, and graduated in May 2015. The young man whose first school experience was outside under a tree in his village by the Nile, now had two degrees.
Kathy Kenwright, chair of the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at UTHSC, said Maluk was a welcome addition to the student body.
“Deng was always cheerful, respectful and very grateful for the opportunities that UTHSC offered,” she said. “Deng taught us all to appreciate so many things that we take for granted in the U.S.”
Maluk contributed so much, that he received the Alice Scott Hitt Award at graduation, which goes to a student who shows outstanding personal and professional characteristics.
Maluk had always wanted to return to Bor Town. He had learned his parents and siblings survived the war. They talked on the phone, but had not met in person since that forced parting so long ago.
He planned to go after graduation, and asked his new employer for time to make the journey.
The trip began in December 2016. He did not return to Chattanooga until the following May.
“When I got to the airport, my brother was there waiting for me,” Maluk said. “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 said.
There was a big party. “My dad got a bull and they slaughtered the bull and the village came together,” Maluk said.
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 said. “When I went to college, I knew after I graduate, I have to have a family. I’m kind of putting my steps in order and going step by step.”
He did not know any women in the 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, got everyone’s approval, and purchased 80 to 90 cows for the gift. The wedding took place March 15. The bride is in Bor Town with his family. They talk on the phone a lot, and Maluk is deep in the documentation process to bring her to the United States.
“I’m working a lot of overtime now,” he said. “I want to bring her here.”
Maluk said he knows that life does not go according to plan. Still, he said, he is happy and optimistic. “I just proceed and persevere and keep doing what I’m doing. Once you give up, you fail.”
His can-do attitude 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,” said 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 said. “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.”
Note: This story was first published in the Winter 2018 issue of Tennessee Alumnus magazine.