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Simon Deng


  • 21st Century Slavery: Living Proof
  • South Sudan: Birth of a Nation

Travels from: New York City

Simon Aban Deng is a refugee from Sudan and a survivor of child slavery. A native of the Shiluk Kingdom in southern Sudan, Deng spent several years as a domestic slave in northern Sudan.

Born into a large family, Deng was raised as a Christian. His village of Tonga was a peaceful farming community, despite frequent raids by the Sudanese army where they burned huts and scattered livestock. "One of the first things I was told as a child—if the Arab men come, just run for your life," Deng recalls. When Deng was eight, the Sudanese army swept through his village. Deng was out watching his family's goats when transport trucks carrying troops suddenly appeared. He and his friends tried to escape, but one was shot in the legs and another in the back. Two blind elders in his village were burned alive in their homes. "I thought I was about to die," says Deng.

The raid displaced Deng's family and neighbors, who took refuge in the city of Malkal; dozens crammed into one small house. There, Deng offered to help an Arab man carry some belongings to a ship on the nearby Nile River. But the nine-year-old suddenly found himself sailing away, abducted by the man. Deng was then given to a relative of the kidnapper in the north—as a slave. Deng's master, Mahmed Ahmed, and his wife Amna refused to let him return home. They showed him a picture of a man with his feet and hands cut off, and warned him: "If you complain, this is what will happen to you." Deng became their property, watching their cattle, cleaning their dishes, eating only scraps, sleeping on straw, and enduring regular beatings. His masters called him "abeed" (black slave). Like the majority of families in northern Sudan, Deng's "owners" were Muslim, and they urged him to convert to Islam and become accepted as their own son. But Deng refused and managed to escape after three years.

As an adult, Deng worked as a messenger in the Sudanese parliament and later became a national swimming champion. His work as an activist began then as he started to advocate against the injustices perpetrated against Sudanese Africans in Khartoum.

Deng later applied for political asylum in the U.S. Today, he is an American citizen, working as a lifeguard on Coney Island and continuing to lead the struggle to stop genocide and slavery in Sudan. He has addressed audiences across the nation and around the world.

In May, 2005 he was invited to speak before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. In March, 2006, Deng launched the Sudan Freedom Walk, trekking 300 miles from United Nations headquarters in New York City to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to slavery and genocide in Sudan. Deng was received by 60 Congressional leaders, including former Senators Hillary Clinton (D) and Sam Brownback (R). The walk culminated in a meeting at the White House with President Bush. Deng then embarked on a fact-finding and humanitarian aid mission in southern Sudan and Darfur, where he met with leading southern Sudanese officials, including President Salva Kiir. Deng created a European version of the Walk later that year and walked from Brussels to The Hague calling on the International Criminal Court to press charges against the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes. The Sudan Freedom Walk returned in the fall of 2010 with Deng advocating for a free and fair vote for southern Sudanese independence.

Deng is active in peace and reconciliation talks with the peoples of southern Sudan, which achieved independence from Sudan in 2010 and is now known as the Republic of South Sudan.

Deng is the recipient of numerous awards, including the ADL's Heroes Against Hate (2006) and U.N. Watch's Freedom Award (2011). He has spoken alongside notables and dignitaries, such as George Clooney, Gloria Steinem, Elie Wiesel and the late Ed Koch.

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