From tree leaves to UQ law

Dr Mark Deng poses in the UQ Law Library.

Dr Mark Deng has travelled a long road – from his childhood home in war-torn South Sudan, through refugee camps, and finally, to Australia – to arrive at his current position at the TC Beirne School of Law.

Black icon on white background; image shows a tree with a fountain pen instead of roots.

Dr Deng’s education began under a big tree in South Sudan. He would walk 10 kilometres each way to reach the fields of his teacher, with the students working on the farm for the morning before gathering under a tree and turning to the blackboard, trading cultivation for education.

Decades later, he is now the teacher himself, guiding UQ law students in modern classrooms as an academic.

It’s been a long journey – including four years in a refugee camp and confronting the possibility of never returning home.

However, Dr Deng is determined to set an example for others: to show what you can achieve with focus and opportunity.

Dr Deng has always been passionate about education.

Growing up in a small South Sudanese village called Malek, he was the oldest child. With this came responsibility: it was cultural custom that Mark would follow in his father’s footsteps, taking over as the head of the Panoon clan.

But Dr Deng wanted something else.

“This desire to be educated started when I was very small," he said.

“My only job when I was in the village was to look after my dad’s cattle, to take them in to the jungle and bring them back in the evening.

"I would take tree leaves and would just scribble on the tree leaves all day, every day.”

His father didn’t understand his need to learn, but at the urging of an uncle, allowed Dr Deng to attend school.

“I used to hear that my uncle was a doctor,” he said.

“That might have been the factor that ultimately pushed me to go this way.

“I used to travel about 10 kilometres each way to go to school in a nearby village. Walking barefooted, with no shoes on. This was pretty normal in the remote part of South Sudan.” 

A picturesque traditional tribe's village in South Sudan.

Although Mark’s village was remote, it wasn’t untouched by the civil war that had plagued Sudan for his entire life.

In 1999, Mark and his cousins travelled to Kenya, where he would spend the next four years in a camp known as Kakuma, alongside 85,000 other refugees.

The journey was the first time he’d ever travelled in a car.

“Life was tough when we first came – there was not enough food to eat,” Mark said.

“We were lucky if we had lunch, usually we would just have an evening meal. There was food scarcity. But that wasn’t unusual for us, coming from the village.

“The climate was horrible. It was a dusty place, so dusty every day, and it was hot.”

There was also danger, with groups of displaced people from outside the camp coming to scavenge food during the night, when the Kenyan police had left.

“They would kill you if you tried to stop them."

But despite the challenges, the camp also provided an opportunity to learn. Mark attended school alongside 600 refugees, completing four years of study.

In 2003, a Sudanese friend who had already made the journey to Australia managed to sponsor Mark. After four years in camp, it was suddenly a matter of months before he boarded a plane to Australia.

“It was my first time on a plane. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know much English,” he said.

“I was very quiet, but I wasn’t feeling very nervous. I was looking forward to coming to Australia.”

Mark flew to Perth before transferring to Brisbane, then joined his sponsor in Toowoomba. He attended St Mary’s College as soon as possible, entering into Year 9, before completing high school at St Joseph’s College.  

“When I came to Australia, I realised that I had this amazing opportunity,” he said.

“I realised that being the first in my family to go to school, I had to do something that my siblings and the next generation could follow.

“I said to myself that I want to set an example for my family. I would do a PhD, so the next people would find it easy to follow my footsteps.

“Because I’ve done it, they would see it’s possible.”

Kenya, Kakuma: Children learn in front of a classroom in the Al Nuur primary school in Kakuma, one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya.

After graduating high school, Mark completed a Bachelor of Law at James Cook University.

He gained a Master of Law from UQ in 2011, and spent several years working before completing practical legal training at the Queensland University of Technology in 2014.

He was admitted as a lawyer in 2015 and began working in community legal centres in the Northern Territory.

In 2017, he decided to pursue his dream of completing a PhD and joined the UQ School of Law on an Australian Postgraduate Award.

His thesis topic was on the constitution of South Sudan – in 2011 the country gained independence, but a repressive government and ongoing civil war mean the new nation is ranked as the fourth most likely to collapse on the Fragile States Index.

“My PhD is about changing the governing system in the country, by having good laws, good policies,” Mark said.

“Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech: these are strange ideas to them.

“I do hope that I will be able to contribute to the change that is necessary for the development of my country.

“That is why I have made my thesis open access.”

The nature of Mark’s research – criticism of South Sudan’s military government – means it has not been safe for him to return.

“I’m very conscious of that,” he said.

“Maybe, when we have a change of government, I can return.”

Instead, Mark works to help his country from afar. He talks to other South Sudanese refugees and shares his experience.

Reports of antisocial behaviour from some of the community pain him.

“Why not use this opportunity to change lives, and use this opportunity to help those back in South Sudan? Don’t waste this time,” Mark said.

“It’s just a matter of focusing on your studies, and you can succeed. 

“University can be daunting. I could have dropped out in my first year, but I kept going. I had the courage to continue in my studies.”

Dr Mark Deng poses in UQ St Lucia's Great Court in front of sandstone buildings, green grass and trees.

In July this year, Mark will cross the graduation stage at UQ as a Doctor of Law.

He’ll continue to research and teach at the University on a UQ Fellowship, working to turn his thesis into a book.

His ultimate goal is to continue to learn and share his hard-earned knowledge with others.

“I have come so far from South Sudan; I want to use my experience – it’s what drives me to work and to teach, to help people to improve their lives.”

Now, the boy who spent all day writing on leaves in the jungle is a respected law academic who spends all day writing on a laptop in St Lucia.

“I’m writing constantly; seven days a week I’m writing,” he said.

“To me, it would be a rewarding career, to impart knowledge on other people. It’s something important, something I value greatly.”

UQ is celebrating Refugee Week from 21–25 June 2021.

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Image credits
Images of Dr Deng: The University of Queensland / Marc Grimwade
Getty Images /
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Contributor
Getty Images /
picture alliance / Contributor