Ger Duany was only 13 years old when he became a child soldier in his home country of what is now South Sudan. Spending his childhood living in constant fear of being killed, he did what he had to — he picked up a gun and shot back, the only way to survive in a war.
More than 20 years later, Duany, now 36, is a model and actor living in New York. He was one of the thousands of “lost boys of Sudan” who were brought to resettle and rebuild their lives in the United States. He recently played a leading role as a Sudanese refugee in the film “The Good Lie” opposite actress Reese Witherspoon. The movie focuses on the struggles of social integration faced by refugees in a new country.
“Becoming a refugee meant losing everything you know about your life, and death was a constant thing that most of us have seen,” Duany tells The Japan Times. “(We went through) many dangers to survive.”
Duany says guns were everywhere where he grew up, and he was only a child when he first picked up an AK-47.
“That is the destruction of civil war. It was about surviving, protecting yourself and your family,” Duany says. “You shot at anything that was living or walking because that is how intense it was.”
After many of those he knew had been killed, Duany decided to seek an education. At 14, he put down his gun and walked thousands of kilometers with very little food and water and eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia before moving on to one in Kenya. Then the day came in 1994 when, at the age of 15, he finally saw hope for a better future after being selected to go to the United States.
As the film “The Good Lie” shows, refugees who resettle in other countries face many difficulties. It’s not just a different language and culture, its a whole new lifestyle.
Duany recalls with a laugh how wonderful he thought flush toilets were and how he still can’t get used to cold winters, but there were also many challenges. Fortunately, he had the support of his uncle’s family, who had fled to the U.S. long before he did. Even though Duany had not met his father’s relatives before, he says they gave him a warm welcome and helped him rebuild his life.
“(Integrating into) a different country takes everything away from you. When you become a guest in someone’s home … that is how it feels,” Duany says. “I had to learn their way of life, their way of doing things, I had to learn the law, I had to learn everything from the very beginning.”
Duany made his debut in the entertainment world with a part in David O. Russel’s 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees” and his career in both acting and modeling has taken off since.
He was also the subject of a documentary titled “Ger: To Be Separate.” The film looks at how he was separated from his mother for 18 years while building a life in America. He then reunites with her at a refugee camp in Kenya. His mother has lost six of her 11 children.
In June this year, Duany was appointed a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador. He says he hopes to convey his message of hope, especially to the children in South Sudan who are still facing the same violence that Duany experienced decades ago.
“My story of adversity is the story of millions that are displaced all over Africa,” he says. “It pains me that innocent people continue to die and those who survive are doomed to an unpredictable existence. I always want to bring a message of hope to the refugees because without hope, you can’t make it. Life is about hope.”