Face of Defense: Airman Seeks to Make Difference in Africa
By Air Force Staff Sgt. Antoinette Gibson
Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa
CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti, Jan. 6, 2014 Two million people died, 4 million were displaced, and thousands more fled during a civil war in his native Sudan, but one “lost boy,” now an American airman, has returned home.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Deng Pour gives school supplies to children in Djibouti Dec. 15, 2013. A native of Sudan, Pour is serving with Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Antoinette Gibson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
When he was 5 years old, Air Force Staff Sgt. Deng Pour had a life filled with gunfire and attacks. He and his family moved from village to village to stay alive. One night, Sudanese government troops ambushed the village where they were living, forcing him to flee from Sudan to Ethiopia.
“The thought of leaving never really crossed our mind until that night,” Pour said. “My aunt and I left everything we had and headed for Ethiopia. My aunt told me my mom had to stay behind to take care of my grandmother, but little did I know that my mom had been actually captured.”
Pour said they survived by eating grass and mud. They watched many men, women and children being killed. When he got tired, he said, his aunt would carry him on her back as they walked miles at a time, ran from troops and avoided bombs dropped from planes.
After three months of unimaginable hardship, Pour and dozens of others arrived in Ethiopia to a refugee camp, where they were safe, but often had little to eat. A year later, his mother joined them, and they felt as if the camp was going to be home, he said.
“When I saw my mom, I was so happy. I just knew everything would be OK, and we would have a normal life,” Pour said.
But after three years, the Ethiopian government was overthrown, and a civil war broke. The family fled back to war-torn Sudan.
“People kept saying, ‘You have to leave; you have to leave.’ We heard the gunfire get closer,” he said. "We felt like it was life or death. We knew the road ahead would be tough, but we had to go. My mom, uncle, cousins and I headed toward Sudan, and my aunt fled with others to Kenya."
About half of the young people who fled Ethiopia -- more than 500 -- failed to complete the journey back to Sudan, Pour said. Those who survived embarked on a long, difficult walk to return to their home. Some were shot, and others were killed by wild animals or died of hunger, thirst, disease or utter exhaustion. Some died crossing the crocodile-infested Pibor River, Pour said. “But once again, I made it. I survived,” he added.
Pour said their home in Sudan was not how they left it. Their village had burned down, and the livestock had been killed. They made do with hardly anything, Pour said. One day, a plane flew in to deliver aid to his country, and Pour and his cousin stood watching in amazement.
Pour’s uncle asked the pilot if he would take Pour and his cousin to Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Saying she wanted a better life for them, Pour said, she sent them alone to the refugee camp, where the elders from their local village formed loose family groups and took care of them. Pour said he and thousands of other southern Sudanese children became known as the “lost boys of Sudan.”
At the camp, they attend school and learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic. For the next five years, life got better.
“Sept. 17, 1999, is a day I will never forget,” Pour said. “That was the day my aunt adopted me as her son and sent for me to come to the U.S.”
By then, Pour was 16. He could barely speak English and found himself below the academic standard, he said, but he worked day and night to continue to learn.
Pour graduated from high school was accepted into Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky on a soccer scholarship, but it didn’t take him long to realize he was wasting his time. He wanted to join the Air Force, he said, but he was unable to because he didn’t have a green card.
“I knew as soon as I got my green card that I would join the Air Force,” he said.
In 2006, an Air Force recruiter traveled three hours to meet Pour at his home in Fergus Falls, Minn. The recruiter assured him he would do whatever he could to help him enlist in the military. Pour either could wait a year for the job he wanted or go right away by leaving his specialty open. Without hesitation, Pour took the first available job to enlist in the Air Force.
“Services was my first job, but once I was able to retrain, I cross trained into the chaplain corps," Pour said. "I knew was where God called me to be.”
Pour has been in the military for seven years, with assignments at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. He has deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and now is deployed to Africa. Life hasn’t always been easy since he left his country, he said, and mentors such as Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dayton Lowry reminded him there always will be better days.
“Chief, as well as many others, motivate me, and the Air Force is a community where everyone wants to come and help,” Pour said. “There is always a leader or mentor there when you are ready to give up. I have faced many roadblocks in my life, but I’ve been reminded that if you are determined, you can accomplish anything.”
Pour is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa religious affairs office here, where he works in a variety of support roles, building morale among the combined forces and helping partner nation militaries in improving their military chaplaincies.
“He is a valuable member to our team,” said Navy Capt. Dana Reed, director of religious affairs. “With a past that is so rich in this region, he provides us with firsthand knowledge on customs and traditions with our partnering countries.”
Pour said his goal in Africa is simple: to make a difference. "As I was going through my struggles, many people went out of their way to help me. … The Air Force is a way for me to give back, to serve my adopted country, because I know I’m representing something greater than myself,” he said. “The mission here at [the task force] helps people. It helps my people.”
For a long time, Pour said, he was unable to tell his story, but he tells it now because it may leave someone encouraged. His 25-year journey since leaving Sudan has made him who he is today, he added.