My name is Alier Reng. I was born on February 25, 1981, in the present-day Bortown, Jonglei State, South Sudan (however, like many Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan, I am not sure about my exact birthday). Nonetheless, what matters to me is not how old I’m, but rather, I am grateful to the Almighty God for protecting and sustaining me thus far. I’m the third born in my family. My older siblings are girls (Abuol – deceased; Kuer is married with six children and lives in a refugee camp in Uganda), and our last born is a boy (Chiengyol – also deceased).
When the civil war broke out in Bortown on May 16, 1983, my father escorted us to the nearby town (Gakyoom) in the suburb of Bortown and then returned to his work at the Missionary Compound in Pakua. And it took him about two years to join us later in Nyany, Pakeer. Unfortunately, when my father reunited with us in the village, my mother, who’s suffering from Bilharzia (a water-borne disease), went to the western side of the Nile (Aliab in particular) to seek traditional treatment for her sickness, but she died there in 1985.
My Life in the Refugee Camps
In 1987, I fled my home country of South Sudan at the age of six, and I sought refuge in Ethiopia because of the civil war (Africa’s longest civil war). Unfortunately, after nearly four years in Pinyudo Refugee Camp, the Ethiopian government (under Mengistu Haile Mariam) was overthrown. Consequently, we had to flee once again to South Sudan; we eventually wound up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northwest Kenya.
After settling in Kakuma, we resumed our studies, mainly under the trees because there were no schools. I enrolled in the fourth Grade in 1993 at Torit Primary School (Torit is a name given to one of the Lost Boys’ groups – Group 29; the former Group 2 in Ethiopia). In 1993, through the Radda Barnen, the UN initiated a program to send young boys to the families. Thus, I registered myself with three additional boys, and we went to my cousin, Awan Lueth’s home in Group 38. This decision later turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life because my nephew Guor Awan taught me mathematics and sciences when I was in Grade 4. And for the first time in my educational journey, I tied in the 10th position with another young boy. In January 1994, I went to the 5th Grade. And I read and solved all the problems in the 5th Grade’s mathematics textbook before the middle of Term One – Guor had pressed the right button in my brain. I was now excelling in school. So, along with many other boys, I skipped the rest of Grade 5 and went to Grade 6 (I completed both Grades 5 & 6 in one year).
In 1996 I graduated from primary school and enrolled in Form 1 (Grade 9) at Kakuma Refugee Secondary School and graduated in November 2000. Around mid-1998, the United Nations initiated a refugee resettlement program, dubbed “The Lost Boys of Sudan” Program. So, I did my process while in school and completed the process in June 2001 (I believe this was when I passed my final interview). In June 2001, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) hired and posted me to Jebel Mara primary school as a classroom teacher. I taught Grade 8th English and Grade 7th Government, History & Civic (G.H.C). However, I only taught there for about three months before I was resettled in Utica, NY, by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). We arrived at the JFK International Airport around 8 or 9 pm New York time. And our caseworkers picked us up and took us to the hotel; we spent the night in New York City. And they drove us to Utica on the following morning.
Below on the left is our graduation photo taken by our KiSwahili and Business teacher, Benson Chege Njuguna, in 1996/7, and on the right is my Form 4 photo with my nephew Majak Akuien Deng in 2000. I am reading the newspaper in the left photo and wearing a tanktop in the picture on the right.
My Life in America
In Utica, the LIRS rented me an apartment at the Kennedy Plaza (the tallest building in Utica at the time). However, I did not spend a single day or night in it because my groupmates, whom we had grouped ourselves in Kakuma but were randomly selected to come to the U.S. first, asked me to stay with them at their apartment. They were rented four bedrooms or so. We later became known to the South Sudanese community in Utica as the “10 Blecker Street’s Brothers.” In addition to the assistance and support we received from the LIRS, Pastor Sharon Hare of Mariah Olivet Presbyterian church and her daughter Michelle and the congregation also supported us. They bought us winter jackets and many other personal items.
But most importantly, Pastor Sharon and Michelle picked us up every Sunday morning and drove us home after the church service. Moreover, Pastor Sharon was like a mother to me. She asked me to write a weekly article to be published in the church bulletin paper every Sunday.
Unfortunately, because the economy of New York State was devastated by the September 11th terrorist incidents, we decided to move to other states to seek employment and other opportunities lacking in Utica. As a result, my distant cousin Ngor Deng Achiek and I went to Dallas, TX, in December 2001 (Emmanuel Ayuen Biar later joined us in Dallas). Peter Riak Garang and Lual Jol went to North and South Dakota, respectively. Peter Ngeth Nhiany and Mamer Alier went to New Hampshire, and Bullen Ayuen Riak went to Phoenix, Arizona. I believe Jal went to Memphis, and Gatluak Mijiok went to Nebraska.
When we arrived in the Big D (Dallas), we were well received by friends and the Catholic Charities. Luckily, my new caseworkers, Renae James, Mullah Nkrumah, and Mohammed Salim, helped me obtain a job as an order puller at Frito-Lay in Carrollton, TX, within my first two weeks in Dallas. I started at $10.50 an hour in January 2002. Catholic Charities was my new receptive home – thanks to the Almighty God for the connections and blessings!
Nonetheless, my work schedule at Frito-Lay was weird; we had a fixed shift-starting time but a flexible shift-ending time. So, we went home as soon as there was nothing to do or stayed late past midnight. And this posed transport challenges because we used public transport. Unfortunately, the bus services ended at midnight. Hence, Renae (who lived in Plano at the time) used to come to our workplace, picked us up, dropped us off at our respective apartments, and then went back to her home in the middle of the night.
This pestered me! So, I asked her to help me find a car; because it’s unfair for her to wake up in the middle of the night to give us the ride home. Consequently, Renae, Mohammed, and Mullah arranged a driving school for me. Thus, a driver picked me up every morning, took me for training, and then dropped me off at work after the training. Meanwhile, Renae and I were busy looking for a cheap car. Thank God! We found a 1993 2-door Oldsmobile Achieva at her friend’s dealership, and I paid $2,600 for it.
In August 2003, I enrolled at Richland College and transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas in August 2005, and I graduated on May 17, 2008, with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. I initially wanted to go to medical school, so I took over 130 credit hours. Unfortunately, after graduating from UTD, I decided against going to medical school, and I enrolled in a university-sponsored Princeton Review’s LSAT program. But I failed the LSAT – my new door was now shut!
Nonetheless, to succeed in life, you must continually reevaluate your plans before taking any significant action – this saves you from making unintended mistakes that may derail your progress later. For it is written that “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16, ESV)
In mid-2009, a fellow South Sudanese finishing her undergraduate studies at Middle Tennessee State University told me about the Master of Science in Professional Science program, specifically Health Care Informatics, and the requirements for acceptance into the program and receiving a graduate assistantship. Afterward, I went to the university website and reviewed the exact admission requirements; purchased a GRE book plus online resources; studied and took GRE; and obtained better scores than were required.
On my first day at MTSU camp, my current supervisor, Sandi Hyde, was a student in the same program but had been there a semester before me. So, she took me to the Nursing Building because I had applied to the Health Care Informatics Master’s program (I later changed my concentration to Biostatistics and graduated on May 11, 2011). But luckily, after graduating, Dr. Nelson, who’s the Chairman of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the time, asked me to teach introductory mathematics courses and applied statistics. Therefore, I taught mathematics and statistics from August 2011 to December 2016. I accepted a data analyst position at LifePoint Health in December 2016 and was promoted to Senior Data Analyst last month (May 2021).
But while teaching at MTSU, I also worked at Amazon warehouse in Lebanon and Murfreesboro, TN, respectively, during the summer semesters, and I drove for Uber between 2015 and 2017. Moreover, I also worked as a lot loader and later as a cashier at Home Deport between 2003 and 2014 (Allen & Dallas, TX; Murfreesboro, TN).
While working as a Data Analyst at LifePoint Health, I enrolled in the Information Systems Management program at LeTourneau University in January 2016 and graduated with an MBA in December 2017. Next, I enrolled in a Doctor of Business Administration program with a concentration in finance at Liberty University in the fall of 2018. Unfortunately, I stopped taking classes in July 2019 because of the lack of funding, and I decided to withdraw from the program this week (I believe that pursuing a Ph.D. in data science will be worthwhile).
With that said, in addition to work and school, I have taken numerous data science courses online, and I have read a plethora of data science articles and several books. And I write and share tutorials and articles on my data science blog (https://alierwaidatascience.com) and the Jonglei Institute of Technology website (https://jongleiinstitute.com).
Death, Disintegration & Salvation
In 1989, I caught a mysterious sickness. Because I was too young, I could not work (i.e., go to the bush to gather firewood, building materials, or fetch water from the river). My roommates, Bullen Ayuen Riak and Deng Anger, took care of us. However, things changed one morning when I was selected to prepare the squad’s meal, and coincidentally, we’re scheduled to receive our vaccinations that same morning.
Therefore, as I began to pound the maize (corn), I was asked to put the pestle down and go to the nearby hospital for vaccination. So, I did as the group leaders told me, and we went together as a group. We returned later, around 9 am. But when I tried to resume the pounding, the pestle slipped from my tiny hands as I raised it, and it fell onto my back. At that moment, I stood still. I could no longer continue performing the task assigned to me – I became sick. I lay in bed in agony through the last reshuffling. Our caretakers and leaders often mixed us with the boys from other groups (they mixed us and then randomly reassigned us to different groups to build new friendships and relationships and promote unity among the boys from various tribes and subtribes of South Sudan).
Later that night and every night after, I dreamed as if the whole of my family and I were gathered and placed in a small plane by the Sudanese Army; they slaughtered one of us at a time and then forced us to eat his/her flesh. This caused me to screamed the whole night bitterly. Other nights, I saw Sudanese military personnel squatting in my roommate’s backpack (schoolbag). Again, I screeched with tremendous pain the whole night. Yet, other nights, I saw my family members being slaughtered, and their bodies were thrown into the latrine outside our Group compound. I was terrified. I didn’t know whether I was going to recover from that sickness. Sadly, my younger brother (my follower) also caught an unknown disease at the same time as me back in South Sudan. However, I was not aware of his illness because there’s no communication between my family and me in South Sudan and Ethiopia, respectively.
In that same year (1989), our leaders sent the first batch (battalion) of boys to Markas (an Outpost) for basic military training. But I could not go with them because I was sick. Shortly after their departure, I was hospitalized at Pinyudo Refugee Hospital, just a walking distance from our Group compound. While at the hospital, I had another dream. This time, I was wrestling with my younger brother. We wrestled and wrestled until I finally managed to throw him into a heap of ashes (where my mother used to dump the ashes). On the following morning, I woke up free of sickness – I had recovered after that ordeal. As a result, I discharged myself by simply walking to my Group. Later that year, my cousin’s family and relatives came from South Sudan. They told me that my father had passed away but concealed my brother’s death from me for the fear that I might hurt myself if I was told (although I knew that from my dream).
I later attended the basic military training with the second batch that same year. However, no one had yet confirmed the death of my younger brother at that point. Fortunately, one day, as we’re resting on the river bank after a long swim with my cousin, Gai Deng Garang (who had just come from South Sudan with his mother and siblings), he accidentally dropped the news of my brother’s death. It turned out that while my father was taking care of my brother, they both became sick and passed away consecutively.
After my father and my brother died, my family began to disintegrate. My elder sister, Abuol, who had always stayed with my aunt Athou Manyuoth Diing’s family, decided to go her way. Nonetheless, my older sister Kuer chose to live with the rest of our uncles’ families. Unfortunately, Abuol was later married to Manyang Ajok Nyok from Abang. And after their marriage, Manyang, who was an SPLM/A soldier, was killed in 1992. However, according to our culture, my sister was given to her brother-in-law, Biar, but Biar was a drinker. As a result, my sister and Biar fought one day, and Biar bit her, and my sister later died in May 1997 of human bite complications. But no one told me about her demise until around 2006, when I was already in the U.S. Now, my sister Kuer and I are the only surviving members of our family. But sadly, Kuer’s husband, Ayuen Arok Majok, lost his eyesight around 2012.
My family’s destruction has brought me salvation because the dream about my younger brother’s death tells me that nature had a choice between my brother and me. Unfortunately, my brother died, and I survived, but I can’t fathom why God chose me over my younger brother. All I can do is speculate. For instance, maybe if I had died and my brother survived, perhaps my brother would still have not made it because of his living conditions. Or maybe God has a particular purpose for my life. No one else knows except God!
These questions and many more are what keep me going, always working harder to bring my people what they never had before. And the dream about my brother’s death is why I consider myself “The living dead!” Because I would have died if God had not chosen me over my younger brother.
Hope and Healing
Despite all the challenges I faced as a child in various refugee camps and in the U.S., God has restored my hope by blessing me with a beautiful wife. A wife who understands me and wholeheartedly supports the initiatives I aspire to give back to humanity, particularly the South Sudanese community in the diaspora. And a handsome baby boy who turned six months old last month. Moreover, God has blessed me with good health to work and support my sister’s family and relatives. In the same vein, God has invigorated my faith and aspirations to focus on what lies ahead, not what has happened to my family.
“I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; Surely I will heal you.” (2 Kings 20:5, NKJ
Have you ever wondered why you are the only one going through hardship? Or why are things not working out as you planned them?
Well, if you have, you are not alone. We all feel that way sometimes. However, we set ourselves apart from the crowd by how we approach life challenges.
For me, I love to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Say a little girl in South Sudan who is eager to learn, but his parents can’t afford the school fees. Or, yet, a single mother in Guatemala (or my sister Kuer in a refugee camp in Uganda) who wishes she had a chance to come to the U.S. so that her kids could have a better future.
When we reason outside the box, we find better solutions to our problems without losing sleep over them. Additionally, I live by Matt. 6:33, which tells us first to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness, and after that, we’ll receive everything we want.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
In closing, my faith and belief in God have brought me thus far and will take me far in life. My faith allows me to put humanity and community engagement above my interest, which has always served me well.