A Celebration to Remember

Dut Deng doesn’t know exactly how old he is. He doesn’t know exactly when he was born. He doesn’t know the time of day, what the weather was like, or the exact circumstances surrounding his birth.

But thanks to his classmates at Onondaga Community College, he knows exactly what it feels like to celebrate a birthday.

“My heart stopped beating. I’ve never celebrated such a wonderful day,” he says. “This is a true blessing.”

Matt Louer, adjunct professor of English/Reading/Communication, rallied with students in his public speaking course to throw Deng a birthday party to remember – complete with cake, presents, and a touching rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” Debbie L. Sydow, Ph.D., president of Onondaga Community College, presented Deng with a gift from the College and praised his success at the institution.

All were stunned to hear Deng’s compelling story in a speech he gave to the class a few days earlier – to hear that the State Department assigned him a birth date of January 1, 1980 as a mere formality, to hear all that he encountered and persevered to reach American soil.

“I believe I am part of the American dream,” he shares. “I came from nothing. But I came to this beautiful institution and appreciate all it has done for me.”

Deng hails from southern Sudan, but fled his village at a young age to escape violent attacks from the government. He walked more than 700 miles to Ethiopia with thousands of fellow “Lost Boys,” encountering dangers most cannot fathom. Wild animal attacks, harsh weather conditions and starvation were common and painful realities throughout his journey.

After a four-year refuge in Ethiopia, Deng was forced to flee once again, eventually traveling hundreds of miles to Kenya to avoid persecution of his race and beliefs. He stated there until 2000, leaving for America to begin a new life filled with faith, peace and hope.

“Hope is something that always drives you. For me, my hope is to become an educated person and to do something for my people and myself,” he explains. “That is why I have my dream of building a clinic and that war will stop for good so that people can co-exist with different cultures, religions, and races together.”

Deng credits Onondaga Community College for giving him this opportunity – an opportunity to build a solid foundation while providing him the tools needed to accomplish his greater goals.

“We call education our mother or our father,” Deng explains. “Our people have not been in school which is why our people have been taken advantage of. Education will help us work on health care and schools back in Sudan.”

But he thanks the College for more as well. He thanks it for friendships. He thanks it for a sense of community. And he thanks it for giving him something as extraordinary as a real birthday.

“I’ll never forget this day. I’m very happy to be a part of something – to be a part of OCC.”

To learn more about Dut Deng and other refugees with New Year’s birth days, check out a recent article from The Post-Standard.