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‘I will always turn up for humanity’

VCU alumnus Bol Gai Deng, who came to the U.S. as a refugee, mounts campaign to lead South Sudan.

Man wearing a blue suit and blue striped tie seated by a desk in an office. A video camera on a t...
Bol Gai Deng sits in office space used by his campaign. The Runaway Slave poster in the background holds special significance to him due to his own life experience escaping from slavery. (Photo by Jud Froelich, Development and Alumni Relations)

Bol Gai Deng, an alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University, is running for president of South Sudan, but no one can say when the election will be or whether it will happen at all.

The east-central African nation is the world’s youngest, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Less than two years later, however, the country fell into civil war and armed conflict has been ongoing ever since. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 4 million people have been forced to flee, and the effects on the nation’s infrastructure, economy and food supply have been devastating.

Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, has been in power since independence. General elections were scheduled for summer 2015 and then delayed until this summer. Deng and a handful of others, such as South Sudanese human rights activist Suzanne Jambo, geared up their campaigns, but Kiir’s administration again postponed elections, this time until 2021.

Deng, who came to the United States about 20 years ago as a refugee, has not given up on trying to become president of his home country. He believes that pressure from the U.S. and the United Nations could push Kiir to hold elections. Deng’s campaign involves holding rallies in Washington, D.C., and near U.N. headquarters in New York City, speaking at churches, traveling to Africa when he can (though he does not enter South Sudan for security reasons), working with refugee and immigrant populations in the U.S. and broadcasting speeches and Q&A sessions over social platforms such as Facebook Live.

Deng came from desperate circumstances and now wants to bring hope to his people. His village was destroyed and he was kidnapped at a young age. After he escaped from slavery, the U.N. refugee program brought him to the U.S., where he was taken in by a church and a Virginia family. He attended community college and then VCU, where he majored in homeland security and emergency preparedness in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and took political science classes.

A group of people in dress clothes and graduation robes stands outside. One man holds a red, yellow and black (Ugandan) flag.
Bol Gai Deng celebrates his graduation from VCU with fellow African immigrants. (Photo courtesy of Bol Gai Deng)

While at VCU, he became involved in efforts to help Sudanese immigrants and refugees learn to speak and read English, with a particular focus on women and the elderly. (According to the Pew Research Center, Virginia, with a population of more than 100,000 foreign-born Africans, is one of the states with the largest number of African immigrants and refugees.) Deng founded the Southern Sudan Project, a nonprofit that works to provide education to Sudanese youth. He said he received a great deal of help from professors and fellow students at VCU. He used the university’s facilities to teach classes and volunteer teachers were plentiful.

Talking to fellow Africans increased Deng’s awareness of the situation in his home country. “The more active I was, the more active I knew I should be,” he said. Soon he was organizing trips to Washington, D.C., to hold rallies to raise awareness of the plight of South Sudanese people.

“Political science at VCU did not make me become a politician. It had me become a human rights activist,” Deng said. “You realize that you are there to help people and make them also see the future, or maybe just the potential they may not have seen before.”

Political science at VCU did not make me become a politician. It had me become a human rights activist.

That path eventually led him to launch his presidential campaign in 2016.

In some ways, it isn’t clear whether Deng is equipped for the task he has set for himself. For one thing, his presidential campaign requires expensive travel and security setups, and a GoFundMe page falls far short of its listed financial goal. He campaigns largely through social media, but the Facebook page for his campaign has fewer than 4,000 likes. He supports himself through a night job at Lowe’s, which does not give him the sort of international relations credentials one might expect from an aspiring world leader.

However, Deng has backers. One of the most involved is fellow VCU alumnus Don Blake, who leads the Virginia Christian Alliance, an organization that advocates for conservative Christian policies. Blake sees Deng as a potentially world-changing figure. “If we get him elected president, and we get a good government in there, with a new constitution and a free people and liberty and prosperity and freedom, then that will affect 14 million people,” Blake said. Blake provides Deng with office space for his campaign, as well as advice and access to political contacts.

Another of Deng’s supporters is freelance journalist Andrea McDaniel, formerly a morning TV news anchor for Richmond’s NBC12, who has known him for more than eight years. “Bol’s life is dedicated to helping his people back home,” she said. “It is all he thinks about. … He has been through unbelievable heartbreak and persecution, but has not lost his optimism and conviction that things can change.”

In addition to painting a picture of a passionate man who cares about people, McDaniel points to Deng’s “fearless” attitude. She tells the story of Deng’s May trip to East Africa, when he and his team were threatened and harassed in Uganda by South Sudan’s federal security director and his forces. Deng remained undeterred.

If Deng were to succeed in his goal, more hardships would lie ahead. If Deng could return to South Sudan, he would have to say goodbye to many comforts available in the U.S.

“Every time you turn around, you see McDonald’s, Burger King, WaWa, 7-Eleven,” he said. “This is a big deal, to leave America and go to a land where there’s nothing. But for the sake of humanity, because you have millions who are suffering, you have to.”

Even if not elected president, Deng said he would not give up on the cause of South Sudan. “I will always turn up for humanity, that is my dream.”