Fifteen Years Later, Award-Winning Author Judy A. Bernstein Revisits Her Work with Sudanese Refugees

Judy A. Bernstein is a Los Angeles Times best-selling author. Among other works, Judy has worked extensively with refugees and authored two books on the subject, entitled They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan and Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey from Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights. She resides in San Diego, California.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Judy was interviewed via Zoom conference call.

Anything we do to help [refugees], we’re really helping ourselves.

Upon meeting Judy and chatting before our interview got started, I was taken aback by her warmth and sense of humor. I could easily picture how she was able to form such long-lasting and powerful relationships with the authors and subjects of the two books she co-wrote, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan and Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey from Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights.

Judy’s interest in working with refugees was more or less a happy accident. She was a graduate student advisor at San Diego State University as part of a community economic development program. “Interestingly, about three-quarters of the students ended up being refugees.” One of the students from Sudan introduced her to the idea of mentoring other Sudanese refugees who were due to arrive in America. Through him, she met the three authors of her first book, Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng (nicknamed “Alepho”), and Benjamin Ajak, known as the “Lost Boys” of Sudan.

The first day she met with Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin, then just nineteen-years-old, she decided it would be best to take them to the quintessentially American establishment, Burger King. Then they were off to Walmart for writing supplies.

Each refugee comes with something different to offer.

Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin made Judy an offer. “If we write, will you correct our English?” Judy agreed. They began writing out their lives in poetry, short stories, and email attachments. They penned stories of growing up without electricity or running water, fleeing a civil war, their lives in refugee camps, and their eventual landing spot in America. It was then that Judy recognized how “each refugee comes with something different to offer.” Some start with less, some with more. But each unique.

While Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin worked on their stories, Sudan was in disarray. Genocide was rampant. They could still not get ahold of their families. They did not know whether they were alive or dead.

At the end of the year, Judy proposed a counter-offer. “Would you like to put these stories together? Maybe we could [create] a little booklet.” Years later, that booklet became what is known as their first book together, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, which garnered nationwide acclaim and several accolades.

[They] were suffering in silence.

Their motivation to get the book published, Judy explains, was to provide a voice to those who “were suffering in silence.” After Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, Judy recognized the true potential their stories held for those still living in Sudan and likewise for Americans who needed to know about them. “Just meeting them,” she explains, “had a profound impact on me.”

Fifteen years later, Judy still speaks about the value of storytelling both for the story teller and those who listen. Storytelling, she says, “creates empathy” in the reader and “validates” the story teller’s experience. Refugee stories, in particular, can increase this potential ten-fold.

The value of helping refugees, Judy says, is immeasurable. “Anything we do to help them, we’re really helping ourselves.”

Both of Judy’s books are available on Amazon.