Refugee shares perspective on being American, US politics

Ottawa County

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — As campaigns intensify during the final days of the midterm elections, a refugee shared her unique perspective on what it means to be an American.

Rebecca Deng was born in a village in what is now South Sudan, but now she is an American citizen living in Holland. The journey that brought her to the United States 17 years ago was a difficult one.

Her village had not felt effects of the Sudanese Civil War, but one day it was attacked. Her mother could not get away to safety because she was in labor. Soldiers burned down the entire village, leaving the villagers with nothing.

Deng lost her mother after the attack and her father was killed while fighting to liberate the country. She was forced to travel with her uncle’s family to a refugee camp in Kenya, where food and infrastructure were scarce.  

“The opinion of the local people was that we were coming in to take their land or something. There were no police you could call if you were attacked,” Deng said.

She said there were all kinds of trauma and abuse that happened at the camp. Deng spent eight years there, eventually applying for refugee status in the U.S. The application process, which included interviews and background checks, took about a year.

“Something happened in the refugee camp three days before I left. Four months after I arrived (in Holland), we found out I was pregnant”, Deng explained.

She didn’t tell anyone about what happened, saying it was too traumatic. She figured she would never see that place again.

“I was going to a new country, going to start my life over. Little did I know that I was carrying the consequences of what happened,” she said.

Deng told her foster parents she would quit high school to raise her child, but they didn’t want her to give up on her dream of getting an education. They told her to let them raise her daughter while she continued her schooling.

“My dream when I was in Kenya was to finish high school. But when I came here, I realized not only can I finish high school, I can finish college. Not only can I finish college, I can go to graduate school,” she said.

Deng did all of those things, eventually earning a master’s degree. She met her husband in college and now they have two toddlers together. She also still has a relationship with the daughter her foster parents raised as their own.

“It’s a beautiful thing when people can come together and take a situation like this and that’s what my foster parents did,” Deng explained.

She also never misses a chance to vote.

“I became an American citizen in 2006. It was the happiest day of my life. I remember when I went to the voting center, I was welcomed there. Here is the ballot that you can fill out and everybody was saying hello. There were no people with guns or something threatening to hurt or kill you. That is freedom, that is America, and I think that is what we need to treasure.”

Deng is working on a book called “What They Meant for Evil,” which will be released in 2019. She is also an inspirational speaker who helps people understand the terrors of war, especially for women and children.

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