Luol Deng, a 15-year NBA veteran and former Minnesota Timberwolf, was hanging with a bunch of South Sudanese immigrants and their kids one weekend last month.
Fair to say, most of the several hundred South Sudanese immigrants gathered for the national South Sudan Unite conference at an inner-city Jesuit high school off E. Lake Street aren’t quite as financially successful as the modest Deng.
Deng and his family escaped Sudan’s prolonged civil wars in 1995 for the United Kingdom. He parlayed college ball at Duke University into a lucrative NBA career that grossed $150 million. That led to $120 million in real estate holdings, according to Forbes.
The polite, but taciturn, Deng, the son of a former Sudanese education minister who has returned to Africa, has become an economic force as well as a substantial taxpayer. He has residences in Minneapolis and Chicago, where he played for years for the Bulls.
“This is one of my favorite weekends of the year,” said Deng of South Sudan Unite. “Coming together. Working together. Seeing progress. Enjoying each other.”
Deng visited with fellow immigrants, including barbers, doctors, students, real estate agents, educators and others, most now Americans, and their kids, who participated in three days of discussions, a community festival, food, and a fashion and art showcase at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.
Deng also has been an active donor and fundraiser for South Sudan, which has been beset by war over natural resources with neighboring Sudan to the north, as well as its own civil wars that have claimed mostly civilians, including children, as its most prominent victims.
Deng has contributed and raised funds with the United Nations and other charitable partners that total millions of dollars to deliver aid and build schools, hospitals, water stations and more in South Sudan.
“South Sudan is my home and I am humbled to be in a position to help those suffering from lack of access to basic needs, especially the children facing severe acute malnutrition,” Deng said while working with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2016. “I hope to raise awareness of their plight and inspire others to support the millions of South Sudanese people who are in urgent need of lifesaving assistance.”
South Sudan, independent since 2011, has been disproportionately battered by war and attendant lack of shelter, food, water and medicine.
South Sudan Unite, sponsored by Deng’s foundation, is a three-day celebration held in a different city each year where there is a South Sudanese community. It celebrates immigrants’ initiative and success in business and education in America, as well as art, culture and food.
It also serves to remind South Sudanese immigrants that they have a role in ensuring a prosperous, peaceful South Sudan.
Like other immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Liberia, Southeast Asia and Africa, the several thousand South Sudanese in Minnesota become net economic contributors.
Athieei Lam, a Sudanese immigrant and Rochester real estate agent, considered medicine after graduating in biochemistry from Minnesota State University, Mankato. She added a master’s degree in health and human services from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. She chose housing for her profession, first working as homebuying educator for a Rochester nonprofit.
Lam told a room full of young people that she benefited from mentors and from asking questions.
“Be honest, a good person and a person of integrity,” she emphasized in describing the path to success, including as a volunteer. “I love helping people. That’s my strong suit in real estate. Being able to relate to people.”
Akeem Akway, 28, an immigrant from Ethiopia, just across the border from Sudan, grew up in north Minneapolis. He aspired to be a basketball player. He made his high school team. He also realized there are very few Luol Dengs.
“I learned how to cut hair in my house,” trimming the locks of friends, he recalled. Akway graduated from barber school at 19.
He got a job at a suburban mall shop. But his lackadaisical, easy-come-easy-go attitude irked the owner, who fired Akway after months of missing appointments. His next boss became a mentor and urged Akway to think like an owner. Akway quit blowing money in clubs, moved to a cheaper apartment, and started working 12 hours a day and saving money.
Through an acquaintance, Akway started cutting hair for members of the Timberwolves and Vikings.
Today, he owns his own shop in a former Great Clips location in Spring Lake Park. The moral of the story, Akway told South Sudan Unite attendees is: Work hard, work smart, make connections, keep going.
Dr. Noela Mogga and her family fled Sudan in the 1990s. She attended Georgetown University School of Medicine and practices in San Antonio, Texas.
“Success is doing what I want, helping other people and being financially secure,” said Mogga, also an amateur chef and mother of three.
Immigrants become net contributors to our economy. And they enrich, through their restaurants, art and work, our multiethnic, always-evolving American culture.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.