This week, people in Sudan — and people who emigrated from Sudan — are voting whether to split the country in two, creating the world’s newsest country, The south, which is mostly Christian, is expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north. My colleague, Melody Ng of our Public Insight Network, has been talking to Minnesota residents, who are traveling to Chicago and Omaha to vote. She provides this story:
They’re leaving. Hundreds are going. In cars, 15-passenger vans, and church-chartered buses. Most are heading to Omaha, some to Chicago.
But what’s a 700-mile drive for the freedom of your homeland when you once walked 500 miles for your own independence?
Through next week, Minnesota Sudanese (estimated population 1,870) will hit the highways, joining thousands of southern Sudanese across the United States. They’ll converge on eight polling places to vote on the future of a country most have not seen in years.
This referendum gives southerners the power to divide Sudan and form a new nation. It’s a piece of the 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of bloody fighting between Khartoum forces and southern rebels (two north v. south civil wars since 1955 have ravaged south Sudan and driven its people to such distant – geographically, culturally and climatologically – locales as Worthington and Mankato). Nearly 4 million, living in Sudan and abroad, have registered to take part in the vote.
The polls are open for a week, but many Minnesotans plan to vote today because they must be back at work on Monday morning. Buses carrying 300 voters from Rochester and Austin, home to sizable Sudanese populations, headed out at 5 this morning. When they arrive in Omaha, people will vote and immediately reboard their buses and head home.
Those with a little more time (and a place to sleep) drove down on Saturday so they could attend the women’s empowerment meetings or last night’s prayer service and rally.
It seems a long journey and great expense (organizers have been collecting whatever money people in the Sudanese community can spare to supplement church donations for transportation) for a vote that will almost certainly, and overwhelmingly, go the way they want.
When asked why he’s voting, Lero Odola, a Mankato leader in the southern Sudanese political party who has lived here for six years, says proudly, “This is lifetime event and I want to be part of it.” Others echo his desire to make history.
Rose Atoo of Fridley has just as typical a response: “We’re excited. The whole house is excited!” (Photo at top: Rose Atoo (white cardigan and black shirt, back right) and Leeka Gwanganalie (pink striped shirt, front left) with some of Rose’s Omaha relatives.)
Atoo knows the cost of this vote. After her first husband was killed in 1993, she walked her five children the 500 miles between her village, Marida, and the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, seeking safety. They joined up with some Lost Boys, and trekked three months “in the bush.” Her youngest child, just three months old when they set out, was breastfeeding.
She marvels that he got anything out of her. Food was scarce. The sounds of heavy artillery accompanied them. Whenever it got close, they hunkered down and prayed for the best. People died en route.
“It was bad. It was bad. But we made it,” Atoo says, her voice low.
The refugee camp wasn’t much better. It housed tens of thousands of displaced Ugandans, Ethiopians, and southern Sudanese, all subsisting under plastic sheet roofs and tight food rations. Parents of teens couldn’t sleep because southern Sudanese rebels would grab boys at night and take them away to help fight. Atoo recalls, “You don’t know if they’ll come back alive or dead.”
When Atoo and her family landed in Minnesota, still refugees, on January 18, 1995, Atoo looked out the window of the plane into the bleakness of winter and thought: “Where am I going?” She didn’t want to get out. She sat, waiting, hoping they’d take off again.
Fifteen years later though, Minnesota is home: “America is the country that saved my life!”
Her husband, Leeka Gwanganalie, agrees. He’s still working on getting their U.S. citizenship, but he says he’s fully American.
Gwanganalie is a Minneapolis Public Schools physics and chemistry teacher who delights in seeing young people learn. He and Atoo met in the Twin Cities not long after she arrived, and they had three children together, so eight kids in all (10-30 years old), plus six grandkids.
In his midteens, Gwanganalie left Sudan, and eventually made his way to the States in 1981 for college. Neither he nor Atoo has returned to Sudan since arriving here. But they will soon.
“It’s my dream to go back to a free country. I was forced to leave my country and prevented form going back,” says Gwanganalie. “I have to go, to see brothers and sisters. We lost a lot of people during the war. I have to visit to see.”
That’s why they haven’t made a trip yet. They’ve been holding out for a free South Sudan.
“I am waiting for the day – counting down the hours every single day! I just want to go home. I just hope this dream comes true,” Atoo says with anticipation. It’s not that she loves Minnesota less, but she yearns for her homeland.
If all goes as predicted, after the votes are counted will come the arduous work of building a new country. “We will need a lot of help, because we are starting for zero: No development, no clean water, no roads, no hospitals, no schools even,” explains Gwanganalie.
Atoo chimes in: “We have something to educate them, to help. This is the knowledge we got from America. We’ll show them.”
That spirit of wanting to help is common among Sudanese here, at least among those who once lived in Sudan. Some want to visit; others are intent on returning for good.
Martha Bec of Rochester is practically a single mom of six now because her husband is already back in Sudan, helping with the vote there. As a teenager, she was, twice, almost dragged away by rebel fighters looking to increase their forces. Her older brother saved her by volunteering to fight in her stead. She declares that after 14 years here, Minnesota is her home. But she’s been studying social work because she wants to help women and children. If God leads her to work in Sudan, she’d be thrilled to go. She wants women be decision makers in the new South Sudan.
“I came to the United States as a refugee [18 years ago] knowing that my country one day will be free. That’s why I got my education – to go back. I can’t just sit here,” says Akway Cham of St. Cloud, a Ph.D. student in public health. He quotes JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
He chose to study epidemiology because he saw so much disease in Sudan, and he wanted to be able to do something about it. In 2006, he returned short-term with a USAID program to teach some of his skills to his people. When he finishes his degree, he’ll move back: “It’s my duty.”
If you have a story about what this vote for an independent South Sudan will mean for you, your family or your community, please share it here. Some of the people in this post are sources in MPR’s Public Insight Network.