By all accounts, 19-year-old Keer Deng should be a frightened, angry, almost feral young man, given that the early years of his life were filled with slavery, starvation, and torture in his native Republic of South Sudan.
But watch him navigate the grounds of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, and his movements paint a different picture. He’s demonstrably happy — ebullient, in fact — high-fiving peers and cracking jokes as he passes faculty and classmates in the hallways. He only gets annoyed, it seems, when people ask him why he’s always smiling.
“The answer is that I have been given a chance to live, to be grown up,” he says. “That is all.”
That isn’t really all.
Deng’s is a story of pain and tragedy, reinvention and hope, all born on a journey that started 13 years ago when his then-slave master, who had beaten him for years, blinded him as punishment. It’s a journey with layovers in refugee camps and an orphanage, a journey that has brought him to the United States and now to Boston, thanks to a veteran journalist whom Deng calls “Momma Chicken,” and her brother who happens to be an owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, whom Deng simply calls “Uncle Bruce.”
Keer Deng grew up in the southern part of Sudan, before the country split into two.
His family were South Sudanese Christians, reportedly the smallest, weakest, and most bullied sect in a region dominated by warring factions of indigenous black and Arab Muslims.
“I believe I was about 5 when I became a slave,” Deng says.
He was the child of an era when an estimated 200,000 South Sudanese Christians were, according to the human rights group Christian Solidarity International, kidnapped and sold into slavery to warlords and wealthier Arab families in the northern and western parts of Sudan, near the Darfur region.
Speaking in halting but clear English, Deng always qualifies his age with “about,” because no one knows exactly how old he is.
Though he remembers his mother, who is presumed dead, Deng says the passage of time erased his father from his memory.
“I know nothing of him,” he says. “I do remember my mother, and I hope for her. I believe that she is still alive somewhere. But I do not know whether I have brothers or sisters. It is possible. I have an uncle. And I speak with him on the telephone occasionally.”
Something else he remembers is being beaten by his master, often just for doing a chore poorly or not picking enough tea leaves in his master’s fields.
“At night they tied me up to animal, large animal like goat or cow, to prevent me from run away,” he says. “When I was 6, he took my eyes.”
Deng only dimly remembers what he did — inadvertently letting a goat wander away from the herd — to anger his slave master. But he does remember the punishment – chili peppers rubbed in his eyes and being hung upside down from a tree above a campfire until he was blinded.
“You think life is over when this happens,” Deng says.
And it might have been, if he had not been freed eventually and relocated to South Sudan to a refugee camp and orphanage operated by Christian Solidarity. “Actually, his masters released him to us — not because they were charitable, but because they decided he couldn’t be a good laborer without his sight,” says Franco Majok, a native of Sudan and a Boston-based project coordinator for Christian Solidarity.
Ellen Ratner first visited Sudan five years ago with a group of five or six other journalists and her longtime friend Kate Taylor, the singer/songwriter and sister of James Taylor.
“What I saw and experienced pretty much mirrored everything we’ve seen in the news,” says Ratner, a Fox News Channel analyst. “Stark poverty. Pain. Sadness. And some hope as waves of former slaves returned from the north, from Sudan, to try to make lives for themselves.”
During her visit, Ratner visited the camp and orphanage operated by Christian Solidarity International. She recalls one skinny kid who stood out: He wore a floppy straw hat, squatted on his haunches, still as a statue, and appeared to be staring into the ground. But then, she says, something happened.
Kate Taylor began to play her guitar and sing “Amazing Grace” to comfort the frightened children. Many kids shrank away. The boy in the straw hat did not.
Deng raised his head, gave a broad, toothy grin, and began to sway to the music and pat the sandy ground like drums. “He sprang to life,” Ratner says. “And that was our first encounter.”
Ratner learned his story from rescue workers and did her best to communicate with him, as she helped the children learn a few English words.
“I would tell one of the kids to grab a chicken walking by or some other animal, and then I would repeat the name of the animal over and over and over until they learned it,” she says.
Deng was the first child to nail down “chicken.” The second word he learned and defined? “Momma.”
When Ratner returned for her second trip a year later, Deng greeted and surprised her with his memory by calling out “Momma Chicken!” “Momma Chicken!”
“I was so moved when he called me that, when he remembered,” says Ratner, who has struggled with her own eyesight problems and lost vision in one eye. “I remember telling him that we were going to fix his eyes. And then I told Bruce about him.”
Her brother is Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer and minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets whose development company built the Barclays Center, where the Nets play. And when Ellen told him Deng’s story, and persuaded him to visit South Sudan with her, that was enough.
“There was so much sadness,” Bruce Ratner says. “But in a way, there was hope, because these people had been freed and had returned home. And I don’t think I saw so much hope and promise in anyone as I did Keer.”
The Ratners spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees on Deng’s behalf, to get him into the United States. They got him a passport. And they recruited US Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and then-chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, to help get Deng a visa, so he could visit the United States to have surgery on his eyes, and maybe stay permanently.
The Ratners cosigned as his sponsors and arranged for him to have surgery at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. They also enrolled him in Lighthouse International, a nonprofit Manhattan school that helps the visually impaired to live independently.
Deng relied on a translator when he testified before Smith’s congressional subcommittee about conditions in Sudan. But his English and his Spanish (thanks to Spanish-speaking nurses) soon improved dramatically and rapidly.
“The kid absorbs everything,” Bruce Ratner says.
They took him to the 2011 White House Christmas party, where Deng met President Obama, who told him to study hard and embrace education.
His biggest adjustment was seeing the Ratners as family. After a few months in the United States, Deng began to feel self-conscious about being so far from home. “He wanted warmth,” Ellen Ratner says.
So he stopped calling her Ellen and revived “Momma Chicken.” She, in turn, realized that she had stopped “sponsoring” Deng just weeks after his arrival and had instead begun mothering him.
“I never wanted to be a mother,” says Ratner, who has no children but now describes herself as “the stereotypical doting Jewish mother” who wants Deng to be well-adjusted, happy, and “equipped to grow into a great man.”
After a few more months in New York, the Ratners moved Deng to the Perkins School.
Slight-framed Deng, dressed in khakis, an untucked black shirt, a black leather jacket, and black slip-on loafers, walks the halls en route to a math class.
He greets passing friends, telling them he’ll catch up with them after class “in cottage,” the nickname for Perkins’s dormitories, or in the technology center, where they’ll play video games, listen to music, and debate who has the better iPhone apps.
His command of English now has him testing slang. “Catch you later alligator!” he yells out to one teacher.
Deng mostly carries his cane, only occasionally needing to tap it on the floor or the base of a wall to gauge his position.
“So many things that maybe you would not think about had to change for me,” he says, holding up the cane and shaking it. “I did not want this thing when I first got here. I refused it.”
The first time he felt snow last winter, he thought it was ice cream falling from the sky. And though the concept of reading appealed to him, Deng balked when he felt the pages of his first Braille book.
“It felt like sand and earth, dirt to me. I didn’t like it,” Deng says.
Now, he reads a book every month. His favorite so far? “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
At first, obeying rules at Perkins, like the curfew, was hard for Deng. He thought he was being picked on. “I understand now,” he says. “Rules are good. They give order.”
“Everything you teach him, he gives it a context,” says Marielle Yost, Deng’s foreign language teacher. “He’s had so many adult experiences, that he is able to learn more quickly sometimes, because he has a way to apply the word you’re teaching him or the definition you’re giving him.”
In an essay he wrote for Yost about the fall season, Deng begins, “I like the fall because it is when I came from Africa to America. In Africa we only have two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. I like this weather because . . . it’s not hot and it’s not cold. . . . I celebrated Halloween for the first time. I dressed as a pilot . . . I got lost and there were so many people in the streets around Uncle Bruce’s neighborhood.’’
Asked about his happily meandering paper, Deng just smiles and says, “I want to experience everything. All of it will make me a better person. It will prepare me.”
Ellen Ratner hopes he is preparing to be president of South Sudan some day. But for now he’s experiencing coconut ice cream, hip-hop, and country music, NBA games, and walks along the Charles River.
Surgeries have restored his ability to see some colors in his right eye, and he hopes one day to have even more of his vision back. Bruce Ratner says he will continue to foot the bill, “because this isn’t about money. It’s about getting this young man to where he needs to be, where he deserves to be.”