Contributed by CAMERA intern Chaiel Schaffel. This piece has been republished by JNS.org.
“This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men.” The ending line of the Passover Haggadah is a powerful director. Like a sea creature to water, we tend not to think about our freedom, but rather simply exist in it. The line turns us toward the future, and takes us by the hand, shaking us from this complacency.
Simon Deng needs no such introduction to freedom. He was a slave. Mirroring the Passover story, Simon, too, was enslaved in Africa. Recently a guest speaker at the University of Miami’s Emet Israel group, Deng was met with a sea of faces from an unlikely duo: the usual Pro-Israel CAMERA affiliate Emet Israel and the seemingly Israel-shy African Students Union. Deng expanded on his personal history to the assembled crowd of U-M students.
His particular story begins in South Sudan, Deng’s homeland. He began his life as a child in a village in southern (now South) Sudan. There, he and his family were subjected to systematic oppression from northern Sudanese Arabs. For example, Simon and his family would regularly need to vacate their village because Arab raiding parties came to town frequently and burned the makeshift houses to the ground. The families would come back when the area was safe again, and find that “…the elders that could not walk or see were burned alive… These are the kind of things that a child cannot forget,” Deng said. After each raid, Simon and his family would begin to gather up sticks, again and again, and rebuild anew.
At the age of nine, he was deceived by an Arab neighbor, who abducted Deng and gave him as a “gift” to his relatives. From there, he was kept as a domestic slave to the family, and was subjugated as such. Simon was beaten regularly, worked endlessly, fed table scraps, forced to sleep on hay with animals, and subjected to psychological abuse. In a speech to the Durban Watch Conference, he remarked that “…I was unable to say the word, ‘No.’ All I could say was ‘Yes, Yes, Yes.’”
In an interview with CAMERA on Campus, Deng remarked that “…for three and a half years, the only two things I had left were hope, and patience. I never let it go.”
“They told me I had a way out,” he continued. “I could convert to Islam, and become their son. I came so close to converting, to end it. But I was one hundred miles from giving up my identity!” Whenever the family would ask him to convert, as he could not say no, he replied “I will think about it,” in a perennial attempt to stall the family from washing away his last vestiges of self.
In his desperation, Simon decided that although they had taken his freedom, the Sudanese family would never strip him of himself, his mind, and his thoughts. The fight, for Deng, was not simply self preservation, but self preservation; the clinging, often by the very fingertips of his willpower, to any shred of identity a nine-year-old boy possesses. Upon his eventual escape and return to his loved ones in the south, one of Deng’s first actions was to have himself marked with the scars of the Shilluk tribe that prominently line his lower forehead, despite his family’s objections. “In the back of my mind, I was in psychological terror. I needed to mend myself, to make myself officially Shilluk, and to let it be known that if anything were to happen to me again, I know that I am not just a nameless child, but that I am Shilluk.”
After three years, Deng escaped with the help of fellow tribesmen back to his family.
Try as he might, Simon Deng could not forget the years of harsh trauma visited on him under the rule of the Arab family from the north. He attended university in Khartoum, and later came to the United States, where his fated encounter with Israel had yet to take place.
There, he became a noted human-rights activist, working to further the anti-slavery movement from the United States. Through Jewish contacts made in the United States, Simon had the opportunity to be among the first on the scene with the Sudanese refugees in Israel and speak to the Israeli government on their behalf. To Deng, it was not a case of “Let my People Go,” but rather, “Let My People Stay,” as the Sudanese were the subject of an intense deportation debate in Israel.
“I had to mediate the negotiations,” he began. “ I went there [Israel] three times in one year. I was really the only Sudanese to have made Jewish friends [in the United States].” He continued, “We managed to convince the Israeli government that ‘These people are not your enemy…’”
Before coming to Israel, 26 Sudanese migrants had been murdered in Cairo during a protest against racism. “The first word from their mouth when they arrived here was ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’” said Deng. He continued to pledge his support for Israeli action, saying that there was “Not another country in the world…” that would absorb refugees, and allow them to “…settle in the middle of their cities.” He is grateful to Israel, saying that “They [the refugees] were received, given shelter. They accepted them. So I became an advocate.”
At the same speech to the Durban Watch Conference, Deng asserted that the primary reason for the U.N.’s continual lack of action in Sudan is its preoccupation with Israel—a preoccupation that Deng deems “absurd.”
Deng has continually stressed the hypocrisy of the United Nations in public forums. In his address to the Durban Watch Conference, he noted, “Black Muslims from Darfur chose Israel above all the other Arab-Muslim states of the area. Do you know what this means!? And the Arabs say Israel is racist!? …In Israel, black Sudanese, Christians, and Muslims were welcomed and treated like human beings. Just go and ask them, like I have done. They told me that compared to the situation in Egypt, Israel is ‘heaven.’ Is Israel a racist state? To my people, the people who know racism, the answer is absolutely not.”
He continues, “The United Nations knew about the enslavement of South Sudanese by the Arabs. Their own staff reported it. It took UNICEF—under pressure from the Jewish-led American Anti-Slavery Group—sixteen years to acknowledge what was happening.
“…Look at the situation of the Copts in Egypt, the Christians in Iraq, and Nigeria, and Iran, the Hindus and Bahais who suffer from Islamic oppression. The Sikhs. We—a rainbow coalition of victims and targets of Jihadists—all suffer. We are ignored, we are abandoned. So that the big lie against the Jews can go forward.”
A popular maxim holds that freedom comes at a price, and Simon Aban Deng has the exact rate of exchange etched into his forehead. The Haggadah’s end line holds all too true for the thousands of modern-day slaves in Sudan, who are left but with a shred of hope, chanting, “This year we are slaves. Next year may we be Free Men.”