Forced to become a child soldier in South Sudan at six, Deng Thiak Adut thought he would never be able to escape. But a remarkable series of events allowed him to come to Australia and today he is helping other refugees as a lawyer in Sydney.
Instead of shooting hoops and riding bikes, Deng Thiak Adut, was learning how to shoot an AK-47 assault rifle when he was just six years old.
He was snatched from his mother in South Sudan and forced to take on a new life as a child soldier in his country’s civil war. He says those harrowing days have stayed with him.
"I remember everything. I remember watching almost my life just leaving me somehow," he says.
Before he was eight, Mr Thiak Adut was indoctrinated and didn’t know there could be a life outside the army.
His brain was still developing but he had learned to think like a soldier. He says death became a normal part of life, one he had to become desensitised to.
"One person from your platoon dies, or a couple. [and] you feel unhappy because the position has gone," he says.
"But you are feeling happy because you have more rations because one person is missing."
"Death is a good thing and at the same time it is a bad thing."
Mr Thiak Adut anticipated death daily, often coming close to it himself.
He was once shot in the back and nearly bled to death. He witnessed multiple explosions, including someone detonating a grenade while playing with it. And he saw close friends die.
"Your mind is always switched on, and you knew that something may happen and if it doesn’t happen now it will happen later," he says.
'My golden ticket'
A constant fear of torture meant Mr Thiak Adut never seriously thought about running away from the army.
It wasn't until his older brother came that they were able to escape to Kenya together in 1995.
They were taken in by the United Nations, who registered both brothers as refugees. But Mr Thiak Adut says their real chance at a new life came in the form of a sponsorship from Australia.
"All of it: travel, sponsorship and visa, it’s all [thanks] to the family that sponsored my brother and I," he says.
"They are my golden ticket in being able to come here."
A video telling the story of Mr Thiak Adut's remarkable journey - made by the Western Sydney University - has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube.
A new world
In 1998, Mr Thiak Adut landed in Australia as a free man. But the country he arrived in was very different to the one he had left behind.
He remembers his first day in Sydney fondly: getting off the plane, staring at the beautiful architecture and enjoying his first meal - breakfast at MacDonalds.
"The first three days were good, and then a week later was okay," he says.
"And then the second week, the third week, everything turned upside down… If I had money in my pockets I would have left Australia and gone somewhere else. I just couldn’t function."
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Mr Thiak Adut says being the only black family in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown was isolating.
Simple tasks, such as crossing the road and operating a microwave, were overwhelming and difficult.
The kindness of his sponsors allowed him to get by, but it wasn’t until Mr Adut taught himself to read, write and speak English when he was just 15 that he truly felt independent.
He collected English dictionaries and read the bible because of its simple language, and practiced with friends.
Mr Thiak Adut was granted a scholarship to university and eventually became the first in his family to graduate – with a Bachelor of Laws from Western Sydney University.
He is now a partner in a law firm in Western Sydney, and a prominent figure in the Australian-Sudanese community, something he says wouldn’t be possible without the sponsorship he received nearly twenty years ago.
Mr Thiak Adut says his gratitude towards Australia is endless.
"Australia made me a lawyer, it could make you a scientist, it could make you an engineer, it could make you anybody you ever wanted. It’s Australia. It’s a beautiful country."
This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.
Note: This story was edited to change the video attribution from University of Sydney to Western Sydney University.