South Sudan's Secession Vote: What it Means Among the Diaspora in the U.S.

Ater Ater, a 19-year old with a hockey player's build, drops into a threadbare seat at the back of his high school auditorium in Portland, Maine. Not so long ago in the same room, Ater was belting out "Bye Bye Birdie," twirling fresh-faced girls in poodle skirts as a member of the cast in that Broadway classic. Today, he is there to help determine the fate of an East African nation.

In January, the inhabitants of south Sudan are to decide by referendum whether to secede from their neighbors in the north or to remain part of a unified Sudan. According to the Sudanese Referendum Act, ratified by Sudan's legislature in 2009, the United States-based diaspora is one of eight expatriate populations eligible to participate in the vote. And while this U.S.-based community is relatively small--estimates vary, but south Sudanese government officials place their number at around 150,000, or roughly four percent of the global diaspora--it may prove crucial to the success of a new south Sudan.

"The diaspora can lobby the country of the host," Justin Laku, director of Friends of Sudan, an Ottawa-based nongovernmental organization, tells me in the drafty auditorium. "The diaspora becomes the voice of the voiceless people of Sudan." Across the United States, South Sudanese communities have mobilized in anticipation of the vote, and here in Portland on a rainy fall day, the Southern Sudanese Society of Maine has convened a conference to discuss the many complexities--political, historical, cultural--that secession entails.

Laku, tall and thin in an ill-fitting suit, steps up to the podium. "We elect people to power in Africa, but they become crazy," he says, scanning the audience seated before him, a mix of Sudanese immigrants and a few white Mainers. "And they kill us. Like Mugabe." A balding, middle-aged man in the audience raises his fist in the air. "Southern Sudan, oyei!" he bellows. A young boy in a red soccer uniform sighs loudly and tugs at his father's shirt. Ater slips out of the room, heading for work at the local skating rink.

Throughout the day-long event, mothers arrived with babies and toddlers in tow. Salah Al-Din Arbat, the elder of the Darfurian community in Portland, sat through hours of discussion in a language he does not understand. Yet notably absent were the Sudanese youth: Those old enough to participate in the referendum but young enough for Sudan--its culture, customs, and languages--to have receded in memory. "The young people slept in," Labo Ladoka, the conference organizer, explains to me unhappily.

Ater--who roused himself early on a Saturday morning because "when opportunity knocks, you take it, and this was an opportunity to learn more about Sudan"--was one of the few exceptions. Born in Cairo, Ater left Sudan when he was just two months old, fleeing with his family first to Egypt, and then to Atlanta, before eventually settling in Maine. While his mother has had some difficulty adjusting to the frigid weather and strange customs of her new home ("I won't eat lobster. It looks funny to me, like an insect. Why would anyone eat that?"), Ater thrived. He learned the rules of ice hockey by watching YouTube videos, and he eventually landed a spot on Portland High School's varsity team. He now speaks mostly English, rather than Dinka, with his brothers, and hopes to join the Portland police force one day.

"Sometimes my mom will joke around, saying the way I talk, and even the way I think, is Americanized," Ater says. His bedroom is filled with the hallmarks of American youth: a varsity letterman jacket hangs in the closet; Battlestar Galactica DVDs clutter the shelves. "For me, not knowing much about Sudan, I don't feel as strongly connected as everybody else." Though he has not yet decided how he will vote in January, Ater believes that participating in the referendum will bring him closer to understanding Sudan. He wants to learn more about his culture: "Right now I only have half, and the other half is missing."

Across the country, Sudanese communities have been reaching out to this younger generation. In Des Moines, Henry Lejukole spent four weeks crafting a presentation, complete with detailed, hand-drawn maps, to educate the local community about the history of southern Sudan. In Washington, DC, contestants in an annual "Miss South Sudan" competition wear the regional dress of their provinces and field questions about the nation's history and culture. "Use your God given qualities and physical traits and character for good causes that will uplift your people," a representative from the Government of South Sudan mission to the U.S. told contestants. "The new nation of Sudan has given us an opportunity to dream."

If the new nation secedes, however, it will face something of a nightmare: a critical shortage of qualified workers created by decades of war and poverty. The International Organization for Migration has launched a program to entice skilled southern Sudanese back to their homeland, with a long list of "priority fields": math teachers, midwives, architects, IT specialists, medics, engineers, accountants, doctors are all in short supply.

But transmitting that sense of urgency and potential to a younger, more westernized generation has been challenging at times. Sudanese youth raised in the United States view Sudan in "the American way," Ben Arthur, the moderator of the Portland event, explains to me. They see the division between north and south through the lens of America's recent wars--a strategic choice rather than an existential moral necessity. "They look at it as when America went to Iraq for war--that's how they think of it," says Arthur.

When I ask Bangich Bol Bol, a 21-year old university student raised in Portland, why he hasn't been following the referendum more closely, he says, "My life has been a little hectic. Politics is sketchy for me." Bol Bol's father has urged him to become more involved with the process. "My father feels extremely strongly about it, so I feel like I am obligated to help rebuild the country," says Bol Bol. For elders of the community like his father, the secession vote is more than a chance for their children to just reacquaint themselves with their native land. They hope it will not only free their people, but bring them home.