Refugee, plant worker writes about survival


By STEPHEN GROVES Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — As Achut Deng lay in his apartment bedroom in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he fell ill along with hundreds of his co-workers at a South Dakota meatpacking plant, he was worried that he was going to die.

It was not the first time that he felt the imminent threat of death.

His war-torn childhood in South Sudan was full of it. But as she focused on building a new life for her family, filled with long hours at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant, she kept those traumatic memories to herself.

However, in the spring of 2020, he spoke about the fear gripping the Sioux Falls workforce, adding to the pressure that pushed the plant to implement new safety protocols that helped protect Deng and his colleagues. colleagues.

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Now, Deng is telling her entire story, from fleeing the massacres to the trauma she experienced as a refugee in the United States, through a memoir that she hopes will raise awareness of both the hardships and the healing of refugees.

Deng’s book for young adults, co-authored with Keely Hutton, takes its name from the words Deng’s grandmother spoke as they fled when their village was attacked: “Don’t look back.”

For decades, he followed that advice to survive. The book details her grandmother’s sacrifice to literally shield Deng from bullets during a 1991 massacre, to a refugee journey where a deadly river, a snakebite and malaria nearly killed her. And even after arriving in the US, Deng writes, she suffered sexual abuse by a male guardian, along with accompanying suicidal thoughts.

“I’m tired of being strong. I’m sick of being embarrassed. I’m no longer ashamed of what I’ve been through,” Deng, now 37, told The Associated Press in an interview at her home in Sioux Falls.

For years, she kept her story hidden under her job at the plant, a side job catering sambusa, and taking care of her three children.

“There’s a reason I created this busy schedule: because I don’t want to have time to myself so I can think about the past,” she said.

Hard work allowed Deng to achieve the life he dreamed of when he came to the US as a teenager. She saved for a down payment on a house, paid for family vacations and even sponsored her parents’ immigration to the United States.

However, when COVID-19 infections spread among Deng’s colleagues, his dreams came under attack again. Sick with the virus, she worried that her children would find her body and be left alone with the stories that others told about her. Deng was still haunted to discover that her own grandmother had been hit and killed by bullets that might have hit Deng during the 1991 massacre.

“I found myself at the lowest point again,” Deng recounted.

In the past, he had quietly focused on survival. This time, she spoke. Deng appeared twice on the New York Times podcast “The Daily.”

She described in convincing detail the suffering and fear among her colleagues, many of them immigrants, when the pork-processing plant became one of the worst infection hotspots in the country in the spring of 2020. Four of her colleagues died. after getting infected.

Many workers at the time were worried about the consequences of speaking to reporters, but Deng says he was just describing his own experience and doesn’t blame Smithfield for the coronavirus. She says the plant is labor-intensive, but Smithfield also provides wages, benefits and hours that allow a single mother to support her family.

When a publicist for Macmillan Publishing heard Deng on the podcast, it sparked conversations that led to the memoir. Deng wrote the book with Hutton, her co-author, while working 12-hour shifts at Smithfield and driving their children to school. She often slept only four hours between her night shift as a supervisor and video calls with Hutton.

Delving into the trauma of her past was difficult, Deng said, and required therapy sessions.

Then every Sunday, when Deng had a day off, he would sit with his children around the dining room table and read the draft of the latest chapter.

“We cry together; we talk about it; then we put it back; then we start the new week,” Deng said.

She hopes that readers will come to understand that refugees have their lives turned upside down and traumatized by forces beyond their control, but that they show incredible resilience in choosing to come to the US She described the book’s cover, illustrated with the a girl’s face covered by a night sky, as if capturing her feelings in the post.

“She is hurt but she is not afraid,” Deng said. “You can see the pain in her eye. But she is not afraid.

Follow Stephen Groves on Twitter at

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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