Front Page METRO Section
4 July 2002
Shedding light on the plight of refugees, indigenous people
by Lucy Y. Her, StarTribune staff reporter
As a boy, Daniel Cheng Yang would ask his father to tell him stories about life in Laos.
The 8-year-old would sit across from his father and listen to what it was like to live in the jungle, running and hiding from the Laotian government after the Vietnam War. Like many Hmong, Daniel's father had fought for U.S. forces against Communists in Laos during the war. William Yang eventually made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand.
"In the camp, you have no hope, you have no future," his father told him.
The stories stayed with Daniel, of St. Paul, and they shaped him into an 18-year-old who's so committed to shedding light on the plight of refugees and other struggling people that he traveled to Africa several times by himself, even taking some time off school, to document their conditions. Such is the focus of his book, "Kakuma Turkana Dueling Struggles: Africa's Forgotten Peoples," which will be published in August.
The book is a compilation of 75 black-and-white photos of the Turkana people of remote northwestern Kenya and of refugees who live nearby in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. In each photo, Daniel shows how the Turkanas' way of life is surviving despite the influx of more than 81,000 refugees from war-torn Sudan and Uganda. The camp, which was opened in 1992, is bringing in people whose cultures clash with the Turkana and who are competing for scarce resources, such as water and land.
The book's cover features the haunting image of a young girl who fled her village in southern Sudan after repeated bombing campaigns by the government. Daniel, a self-taught photographer, captured her image as she was staring through a wire fence. The photo beckons readers to open the book and explore the world of the Turkana.
"To ignore this book is to ignore oppressed people of the world," he said.
The first time Daniel went to visit the Kakuma Refugee Camp, he was 15. Before he could make the trip, he had to get permission from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He received that after making repeated calls over several months.
Daniel's father, an executive director of a nonprofit community organization in St. Paul, and his mother, Gail Martinson, a social worker in St. Paul, scraped up the money to buy him the plane ticket to Nairobi, Kenya, he said.
Once there, the United Nations flew him to Kakuma, provided him with free housing, a car and driver, and protection. He also received free rein to move about the camp. Armed with a 35mm camera and about 50 rolls of film, Daniel took pictures of the people he met and of what he experienced.
After one of his refugee-camp pictures was displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Daniel decided to publish a book of his work. He said he received so many positive comments about that photo that he wanted to share the other images he'd captured.
But it took five months of searching through the Yellow Pages before he found a publisher. Bonnie Hayskar, who owns St. Paul-based Pangaea publishing, initially turned down Daniel's book, but then reconsidered after a few weeks, deciding that it was a good match for her company.
"I felt it was an important story to tell, not only as a record, but because there has not been a lot reported" in the media about the civil war and the genocide in Sudan, she said. And the more Hayskar learned about Sudanese refugees, she said, the "the more I felt that what Dan had accomplished was important."
Daniel will start a national book tour in September, and a portion of the book proceeds will go to buy food and supplies for the refugees at Kakuma.
Dick Bancroft, 74, of Sunfish Lake, who documents indigenous people in Colombia, agrees. In the year that he has known Daniel, he said, they've become close friends because of their interests in making forgotten people known.
"What's heartening to me is having a young man like Daniel come along and do something about it," said Bancroft, the father of explorer Ann Bancroft. "I'm very excited about him because sometimes the youth of today get a bad rap and all you have to do is see a Daniel emerge."
The Dalai Lama, Thekchen Choeling, of Dharamsala, India, wrote in the foreword of Daniel's book: "I am impressed by the maturity he has shown not only in recognizing these peoples' plights, but also in identifying a way he can help them by simply documenting their experience and publishing it in this book. I am always especially encouraged when I come across such kindness and warmheartedness toward others in one so young."
Daniel said his first personal encounter with the struggles of poverty was in Chiapas, Mexico, when he was 10.
At the time he and his mother were traveling through Chiapas to Guatemala to visit a friend of hers. When their creaky, yellow bus stopped at an army checkpoint, several Mexican soldiers got on and started pointing guns at the passengers, looking for Zapatistas supporters.
The Zapatistas are the indigenous people of Chiapas. In 1994, they took up arms against the Mexican government, claiming that they were tired of their land being raped for oil, electric energy and other goods, while they were dying from malnutrition.
"The Zapatistas stand for everything that I am fighting for," Daniel said. "These people are standing up and saying, 'We will not be oppressed.' "
But it wasn't until the fall of 1999, when Daniel traveled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp that he fell in love with the fight for justice.
"I had heard my friends talking of their first love and how they knew from the moment they saw her that she would be their first. This happened the same way for me," he wrote in his book. "She did not have blond hair or beautiful blue eyes. She was a sea of suffering humanity, mud shelters and plastic sheeting, hungry stomachs and heavy hearts. Her name is Kakuma and not a day or night passes without me thinking of her."
He attributes his first glimpse of this love to his father, whom he said was the most influential person in his life.
"I feel really lucky that he could tell me stories, and at a young age I was made aware of the suffering of people," he said. "His stories really instilled a passion in me to fight injustice across the world."
Daniel, a recent graduate of St. Paul Harding High School, will be attending the University of Minnesota on a full scholarship in the fall, where he plans to major in global studies or political science. Or maybe both, he said.
"I've seen these people who are suffering and now I have to learn how to help them."
Lucy Y. Her. Email Lucy at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2002 Minneapolis StarTribune