Survivor of childhood slavery speaks to Byram students

Simon Deng addresses 7th and 8th graders

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  • Sudanese anti-slavery activist Simon Deng addresses 7th and 8th graders in Byram Photo provided

By Laurie Gordon

— Byram Intermediate School's English and Language Arts teachers, Jessica Taylor, Brain Harner and Meaghan Phillips arranged a great surprise for their students last Thursday. Through a grant given by the Byram Township Education Foundation, the school welcomed speaker Simon Deng, a Sudanese refugee and survivor of child slavery.

Deng made a presentation to the 7th and 8th graders about his experiences in his home country and how he advocated in the U.S. to help stop slavery and genocide in Sudan.

"One of the goals of the seventh grade Language Arts curriculum is to expose students to a variety of multicultural experiences,” Taylor said. “After reading the novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, students will have familiarized themselves with the diverse differences that exist between American and Sudanese cultures. It is important for all students to learn the lessons presented from this core novel, as well as having a first hand source that would be able to explain to the students what was already learned from the novel.”

One of the greatest parts of this assembly was for students to see before them a real-life person who has gone through the experiences represented in a multitude of readings and different media.

“Mr. Deng’s story and knowledge was inspirational. Our students seemed completely enthralled in his words, as was I.” said Taylor, who teaches seventh grade ELA.

Deng is a Sudanese human rights activist and native of the Shilluk Kingdom in southern Sudan. He currently lives in the United States. He was enslaved at the age of nine when his neighbor asked him to accompany him on a trip. It turned out that he was given as a “gift” to the neighbor's family and spent years as a domestic slave in Sudan. He escaped at last and emigrated to the US. Deng now travels the country addressing assemblies, like that at the Byram school, about the anti-slavery movement.

“Simon Deng is such an amazing, strong man. Listening to him speak of the horrors of being a child slave, and his eventual escape from Sudan was so inspiring,” said Marie Bullock, a seventh and eighth grade paraprofessional at the school. “He really opened my eyes to the awful things going on in his country. Very informative.”

“Being a member of this community since I was a young child and thinking about my childhood in connection to Mr. Deng's life experiences has left me in awe of his strength,” said Kathy Smith, a seventh grade math teacher. “Many times I would say to my parents that I was not their "slave" around the house. However, after hearing Simon speak I am embarrassed by my insensitive, immature comment. Still today I joke with my parents about this point and now I will remove that word from the story because I was in no way walking the same path as Simon Deng. I have no right to use that word to describe my life as a child. His life and experiences have forever changed and left an impression on the world I live in, which I am humbled to be in his version of the world.”

One of the Intermediate School's goals is to create 21st century learners and to allow students to learn about, experience, and analyze the differences that exist in our world. One of the benefits of doing so is helping students to recognize that our world is an extremely diverse place with a multitude of lifestyles and people. By exposing students to this important speaker, the students were given the opportunity to learn about important cultural differences that exist in our world. In addition, it will be beneficial for students to gain learning about the world in which they live.

The kids were certainly taken with the presentation.

Said eighth grader, Brandi Cunha, “I thought the presentation was insightful and inspiring. It showed how other people live and the kinds of hardships and struggles that they have to go through. It also shows us how privileged we are to have all of the opportunities we have.”

James Shertz, a seventh grader at the school, said, “The presentation made me realize the things that I take for granted that people in other parts of the world would be blessed to have.”

“Simon Deng speaking about his life in Southern Sudan with their civil war and his experiences as a child slave directly relates to the book our students read 'Long Walk to Water,'” said teacher Deb Hooker. “It's so important to bring a sense of reality like this to the students and to hear a real, live person who experienced this tell his story.”

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