‘Don’t Look Back’: Refugee, plant worker writes of survival

Oct 15, 2022, 9:00 AM | Updated: 9:10 am
Achut Deng, a refugee from South Sudan, poses in her home in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Sept. 17, 2022, ...

Achut Deng, a refugee from South Sudan, poses in her home in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Sept. 17, 2022, before the release of her memoir, "Don't Look Back." Deng shared her experience of being sickened with COVID-19 alongside hundreds of her coworkers at a pork processing plant. She shares her story of fleeing massacres and surviving a refugee story in her book. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

(AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — As Achut Deng lay in her apartment bedroom in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, sickened alongside hundreds of her co-workers at a South Dakota meatpacking plant, she worried she was going to die.

It wasn’t the first time she felt the imminent threat of death.

Her childhood, shattered by war in South Sudan, had been filled with 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.

In the spring of 2020, however, she spoke out to tell of the fear gripping the Sioux Falls workforce, adding to pressure that prodded the plant to implement new safety protocols that helped protect Deng and her colleagues.

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

Deng’s book for young adults, co-authored with Keely Hutton, draws its name from the words Deng’s grandmother uttered as they fled when their village came under attack: “Don’t Look Back.”

For decades, she 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 snake bite and malaria all nearly killed her. And even after arriving in the U.S., Deng writes, she suffered sexual abuse from a male guardian as well as accompanying suicidal thoughts.

“I’m tired of being strong. I’m done being embarrassed. I’m done being 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 quietly kept her story buried beneath her work at the plant, a side hustle of catering sambusa and caring for her three sons.

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

The hard work allowed Deng to achieve the life she dreamed of when she came to the U.S. as a teenager. She saved for a down payment on a home, paid for family vacations and even sponsored her parents’ immigration to America.

When COVID-19 infections spread among Deng’s colleagues, however, her dreams came under attack once again. Sickened by the virus, she worried her sons would find her body and be left with only the stories others told about her. Deng was still haunted by finding that her own grandmother had been struck and killed by the bullets that might have hit Deng during that 1991 massacre.

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

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

She described in compelling detail the suffering and fear among her colleagues — many of them immigrants — as the pork processing plant became one of the country’s worst hotspots for infections in the spring of 2020. Four of her colleagues died after being infected.

Many workers at the time worried about the consequences of speaking with reporters, but Deng says she was only describing her own experience and that she does not blame Smithfield for the coronavirus. She says the plant requires hard work, but Smithfield also provides the wages, benefits and a schedule that allow a single mother to provide for her family.

When a publicist at Macmillan Publishing heard Deng on the podcast, it sparked talks that led to the memoir. Deng wrote the book with Hutton, her co-author, in between working 12-hour shifts at Smithfield and ferrying her sons to school. She often slept just four hours between her overnight job 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, she would sit with her sons around their dining table and read the draft of the latest chapter.

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

She hopes that readers will come to understand refugees have their lives upended and are traumatized by forces beyond their control, but show incredible resilience by choosing to come to the U.S. She described the book’s cover, illustrated with the face of a girl overlaid by a night sky, as capturing her feelings at publication.

“She’s wounded but fearless,” Deng said. “You can see the pain in her eye. But she’s not afraid.”

___

Follow Stephen Groves on Twitter at https://twitter.com/stephengroves

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

AP

Associated Press

Bonds, Clemens left out of Hall again; McGriff elected

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling were passed over by a Baseball Hall of Fame committee that elected former big league slugger Fred McGriff to Cooperstown on Sunday. It was the first time that Bonds, Clemens and Schilling had faced a Hall committee since their 10th and final appearances on […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Capital murder defendant and former U.S. Border Patrol Juan David Ortiz looks around the cou...
Associated Press

Jurors hear ex-Border Patrol agent’s confession in killings

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Jurors in the capital murder trial of a former U.S. Border Patrol agent have heard a taped interview in which he confesses to the 2018 killings of four sex workers in South Texas. If convicted of capital murder, Juan David Ortiz, 39, faces life in prison without parole because prosecutors are […]
19 hours ago
FILE - A Twitter logo hangs outside the company's San Francisco offices on Nov. 1, 2022. A top Euro...
Associated Press

As Musk is learning, content moderation is a messy job

Now that he’s back on Twitter, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wants somebody to explain the rules. Anglin, the founder of an infamous neo-Nazi website, was reinstated Thursday, one of many previously banned users to benefit from an amnesty granted by Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk. The next day, Musk banished Ye, the rapper formerly known as […]
19 hours ago
FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by th...
Associated Press

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment

CAIRO (AP) — An Iranian lawmaker said Sunday that Iran’s government is “paying attention to the people’s real demands,” state media reported, a day after a top official suggested that the country’s morality police whose conduct helped trigger months of protests has been shut down. The role of the morality police, which enforces veiling laws, […]
19 hours ago
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham H...
Associated Press

Blinken vows US support for Israel despite unease over gov’t

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the U.S. will not shrink from its unwavering support for Israel despite stark differences with Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and concerns the Biden administration may have about potential members of his incoming right-wing government. Speaking to a left-leaning group that some on the right accuse […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Farmer: Georgia dog injured saving sheep from coyote attack

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia sheepdog is recovering at home two days after killing a pack of coyotes that attacked his owner’s flock of sheep, farmer John Wierwiller said. Casper, a 20-month old Great Pyrenees from Decatur, fought off a pack of coyotes who were threatening Wierwiller’s sheep farm, he said. The fight lasted […]
19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
...
SCHWARTZ LASER EYE CENTER

Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.
‘Don’t Look Back’: Refugee, plant worker writes of survival