Culture Report: An Unflinching Look at Refugee Life in City Heights - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Culture Report: An Unflinching Look at Refugee Life in City Heights

San Diego Writers Festival panelist and Sudanese refugee Alephonsion Deng discusses the new memoir he co-wrote with his mentor, Judy Bernstein.

Alephonsion Deng Judy Bernstein
Alephonsion Deng and Judy Bernstein, co-authors of “Disturbed in Their Nests.” / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

“I always knew I had a story but I never knew I would share it with anybody,” said Alephonsion Deng, one of the co-authors of “Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey from Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights.” “Judy convinced me it was worth telling.”

Judy Bernstein was one of the first people to interact with Deng when he arrived in San Diego in 2001. Deng (known to his brothers and friends as “Alepho”) left Sudan on foot at age 5 as a refuge amid the peak of its second civil war in 1987 and spent 14 years fleeing.

The “Lost Boys of Sudan,” as the group was known, was composed of roughly 20,000 boys, many of whom were not much older than Deng. They fled war-torn, sieged homes and villages and walked over a thousand miles to seek asylum and await passage to the United States. Half of the group perished over the journey and struggle that lasted a decade and a half. Deng and Bernstein are no strangers to writing together; 2005’s “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky,” co-written by Bernstein, Deng, his brother and cousin, told of their perilous, tragic experience as boys during African wars.

Deng was 19 by the time he finally received word he could go to the United States in 2001. After 14 years of survival, he, his brother and cousin arrived in San Diego three weeks before 9/11. In those early days, Bernstein and her 12-year-old son, Cliff, took Deng out to eat American fast food and buy sneakers, without fully knowing how, for the next 18 years and counting, Deng would become a fixture in her life.

“Disturbed in Their Nests,” published in late 2018, is more than just Bernstein coaxing stories out of Deng or his brother and cousin. Unlike “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky,” which covered the Africa portion of Deng’s story, “Nests” chronicles what transpired as he navigated life as a refugee in San Diego, and unravels by way of alternating first-person narratives: Deng’s and Bernstein’s.

Bernstein did not initially plan to become the boys’ official mentor through the San Diego chapter of the International Rescue Committee. She writes of her insecurities about taking on that role, but she knew instantly that she would do whatever it took to support the boys.

Deng’s observations of American life, customs and luxuries is candid, vulnerable and at times quite humorous. Deng’s adjustment to life in San Diego was a rollercoaster, and when he is attacked unprovoked several years after supposedly arriving to safety — beaten in the streets resulting in internal injuries and badly broken teeth — the panic Bernstein narrates is simple, perhaps a little naive, but purely hers: “Did the whole world feel chaotic and violent? Was America no different from the war zone where he’d been except that it had more food, which he didn’t like anyway? He must have wondered if his life would ever be different. Would he be welcome anywhere?” Bernstein wrote.

Alephonsion Deng
Alephonsion Deng, co-author of “Disturbed in Their Nests” / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

Deng’s skills for storytelling are deeply rooted. “It comes from my father; it’s something that is passed down and I got that as a child,” Deng said. “When people tell stories, I listen. I always pay attention. Something in me here moves. I don’t know what it is, but it moves me.” And of his writing background or lack of official training, Deng said, “Where I come from, you don’t say ‘I am this,’ you show what you do. We are what we repeatedly do.”

Deng’s upbringing also taught him that suffering is not to be shared.

“Your pain is supposed to be yours. You do not write a book about it,” Deng said.

Eventually, Bernstein helped him understand that telling his story could be a way of liberating himself from it, and also find common ground.

Their story is intrinsically placed in San Diego — specifically the City Heights area in which Deng lived — and “Disturbed in Their Nests” is an unflinching look at refugee life, not just in America but in this precise region.

Deng and Bernstein are both part of the first ever San Diego Writers Festival, Saturday, April 13. Deng will speak on a panel about writing from the immigrant experience.

Young Art, Become an Artist-in-Residence, and More News for the Culture Crowd

  • “Young Art,” SDMA’s juried student exhibition that features art from K-12 students in San Diego, is open now through mid-May at the museum’s special free-admission Gallery 14/15, adjacent to Panama 66. One exciting fact to dazzle your trivia teammates with is that this student show is the museum’s longest-running program, now in its 44th year. Kids > everyone else.
SDMA Young Art
“Flying Colors,” by a Westview High School 10th grade student / Photo courtesy of SDMA
  • Related: Teen Open Studios, free weekly, drop-in art classes at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights, continue through mid-May.
  • San Diego Dance Theater kicks off its annual festival this weekend. Live Arts Fest 2019 spans two long weekends and features choreography from dozens of guest artists. The U-T recently ran a fantastic preview.
  • Liza Lou lectures on social responsibility in art on Thursday, moderated by Robert Pincus, at The Athenaeum in La Jolla. (KPBS)
  • On Thursday, the San Diego Symphony accompanies a screening of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” The Saturday show has already sold out.
  • Visual’s Jason Gould moderates “Space Changers,” a panel on street art and large-scale public murals and installations at You Belong Here, on Wednesday. The conversation will focus on the community impact of public street art.
  • On Friday, Lux Art Institute kicks off resident Minoru Ohira’s exhibition of her large-scale, recycled-material works.
  • The San Diego Arab Film Festival sets up shop in MOPA on Friday and Saturday. The event’s co-chair, plus Amr Gamal, director of the fest’s opening night film, “10 Days Before the Wedding,” discussed the festival on KPBS’s Midday Edition.
  • In an email sent over the weekend, Marianne Reiner from Run For Cover Books in OB announced that she’s had to let some staff go, and listed many ways fans can help the struggling six-month-old bookstore stay afloat.
  • San Diego Art Institute is accepting applications for summer or fall residencies, which grants selected individuals 200 square feet of private studio space and a culminating gallery exhibition.
  • On Saturday afternoon, Marina Grize, Lissa Corona and Doris Boris Berman — the artists behind the newly opened “Spiele ohne Grenzen/Juegos sin Fronteras/Games without Frontiers” exhibition — host an artist talk at Southwestern College Gallery. (CityBeat)
  • Reza, a famed National Geographic conflict-zone photographer, speaks at UCSD on Monday to launch a month-long exhibition of work there. The official opening reception will be Saturday, April 13.
Reza Deghati
“Lost Childhood,” Afghanistan Tribal Zone, 2004 / Photo by Reza Deghati

Food, Etc.

  • The North Park location of Anthem Vegan closed its doors for good this weekend. Anthem recently opened a new restaurant in Chula Vista, which remains open, so if you can’t live without their “karne,” there’s still hope. (SanDiegoVille)
  • Edible lists some innovative no-waste cocktails around town, including a few impressive uses of the leftover pineapples partly used for tiki garnishes, like fermenting the rinds to make tepache.
  • Speaking of zero-waste, cascara, which is the husks of coffee beans, has been made into a drink by Bevea, a local start-up. Bevea recently won the Ignite UCSD pitch battle. (San Diego Beverage Times)
  • The city’s Economic Development Council heard proposals for allowing cannabis lounges in San Diego, where pot products could be consumed on the premises, and preliminary analysis is underway. (Cannabis Radar)
  • The San Diego Museum of Beer wants to open up the first centralized location for the history, education and art of beer culture in town. With slick renderings and big plans (on-site brewing classes, VR experiences, a 91X recording studio and more), it’s hoping for a 2020 opening and is currently crowdfunding. (West Coaster)
San Diego Museum of Beer
A rendering of the future Museum of Beer / Image courtesy of San Diego Museum of Beer

What’s Inspiring Me

  • A short list of things I love: 1. Alexandra Kleeman’s writing (her novel “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” was wild and brilliant) 2. The Believer magazine 3. beauty pageants 4. old ladies. This piece on the Ms. Senior America pageant is addictive. “I count a dozen unique takes on formal trousers.”
  • I just started reading erstwhile San Diegan Juliet Escoria’s forthcoming novel, “Juliet the Maniac.” Opening line: “It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart into sand.
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