People around the world have been moved by a Western Sydney University ad about the journey of a former child soldier confronted with incredible trauma in Africa to becoming a refugee lawyer in Australia.
Deng Thiak Adut’s message is simple - you can rise above great atrocity to a fulfilling life, but the conventional path is not the only route.
Deng Thiak Adut, born in war-torn South Sudan, was taken from his mother and marched to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
It was here where he was inducted as a child soldier into the Sudanese People Liberation Army and trained to operate an AK-47.
“A child with a gun is somehow not a child any more – they're a solider, a killer,” he told SBS News.
The army went on to teach him how to plant landmines. They subjected him to torture. He encountered near-death experiences.
The UN, previously powerless to stop the army from recruiting Deng, eventually found him refuge in Australia where Western Sydney became his home. He learned English and taught himself how to read and write – the first steps to becoming a refugee lawyer.
Deng tells NITV that trauma can be rechanneled for success.
“We still have trauma, and what I mean by ‘trauma’, I mean what happened in the past. That past is critical ... to realise that we should not dwell in the past, and let’s just move forward.”
He says that from his experience, the power of moving forward has the velocity to turn a downward spiral, upwards.
When he began channeling his energy into education, he conjured a new world.
“Reading and writing is magical,” he said, adding it releases you from others’ narratives.
“Some of the history we know that exists is owned by somebody else, it is not owned by you, because if you can’t read and write, somebody else will own your own story.”
He attributes part of his motivation to overcome his hardships to his half-brother, who provided him with hope before they left for Ethiopia even though life ahead was uncertain.
“The lies [my half-brother told me about getting closer to a promising future] became true, and became the key element of what I think I needed to read and write,” Deng told NITV.
“He said, if I go to Ethiopia, I would have a shirt, I would have pants, I would have shoes, I would be able to read and write. I would be able to have something that was magical.”
Once Deng taught himself how to read and write he put himself through TAFE to finish Australia’s Year 12 equivalent.
“The majority way [Kinder-Year 12 education] may not fit with the Indigenous students, or a migrant student,” he said. “So we should think about an alternative way of being able to get there.” Although any learning should be face to face.
While we must be responsible for ourselves, he says, that does not exclude the government.
Deng said Australia’s policies were designed to give people equal opportunity. “But all these key policies are not being implemented properly. They are usually lip service.”