Chicago's South Sudanese ready for a new nation

January 6, 2011

By Odette Yousef

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Jacob Atem looks forward to helping build an independent Southern Sudan.
Southern Sudanese are gearing up to realize the dream of independence that many have held for years – and those that call Chicago their home are ready to help. Starting Sunday, southern Sudanese around the world will vote on whether to make their region Africa’s newest country, or to remain united with the north. But just as those in the Chicago region are euphoric, their northern compatriots fear that splitting the country could bring more strife.
 
Though it feels a million miles away from Sudan, Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood is a regional epicenter of referendum activity. In a modern-looking office retail space on Ashland Ave., southern Sudanese from across the Midwest have been coming to register to vote. “It's been nice because we've seen a lot of families come in,” said center coordinator Sameera Ali.
 
The center is one of eight in the United States, and Ali said it can handle up to 4,000 voters. Though it hasn’t seen anywhere near that number, Ali said many southern Sudanese in neighboring states have driven up to 10 hours each way just to register. “It's been really exciting for the parents to show the children that they've been able to participate in this historic process,” said Ali. Those registrants will have to repeat the long trips next week, to cast their ballots.
 
Southern Sudanese have been waiting for this moment since 2005, when the northern government and southern rebels hashed out the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement ended a long civil war, and established a process to strengthen democracy and share more of the country's oil wealth. It also gave southerners an out: In 2011, they would be able to decide whether to remain part of Sudan, or to split off and make a country of their own.
 
The trick, said Ali, is to verify that registrants are actually from the south of Sudan, since only southerners may vote in the referendum. “Questions will be asked about lineage, about where they lived, there are also basic family questions that are asked,” said Ali. So far, nobody has been turned away.
 
The conflict in Sudan arose from of decades of forced assimilation. After the country achieved independence from colonists in 1956, Sudan’s government tried to make southerners more like northerners: Islamic and Arabic-speaking. Southern Sudan is tribal, mostly Christian or animist, and its people have darker skin, and speak other languages. The result of the conflict was two bloody civil wars and increasing international pressure on the northern regime to relinquish the south.
 
Once registrants prove they are from the south, each receives a laminated voter card, and dips his index finger into a bottle of purple ink. “It’s pretty,” said Jacob Atem, as he held his out. Atem came in just under the wire – he arrived at the center near closing time on the last day of registration. He and his cousin had driven four hours from Michigan, took less than 10 minutes to register, and then readied themselves for the long drive back. But Atem said it was worth it. “It's up to me, Jacob, to decide can I be a first-class citizen of Southern Sudan, or can I be the second-class citizen in the Sudan,” said Atem. “So this ink tells me that yes, I will be the first(-class) citizen in Southern Sudan.”
 
Atem is one of Sudan's “Lost Boys.” Both his parents were killed by northern militias during Sudan's second civil war. Like thousands of young orphaned boys, Atem was granted refugee status and relocated to the U.S. in 2001. But Atem dreams of going back to the place where he was born. “I'm getting my PhD in health education. Guess what? Where am I going to operate? Well, here, we've got so many PhD's in America, I'm willing to go back to help,” he said. Atem plans to open a clinic in southern Sudan to address pregnancy-related deaths. Southern Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
 
But Atem believes he, and others in the diaspora, can contribute more to a new country than just their formal education. “I am proud as an American, that I will go and help them and preaching the democracy,” he said. “Thank God I understand the American system, and that's what we can apply. We got all the knowledge. In Australia, in Canada, here, everywhere.”
 
Atem’s optimism, however, is countered by others who say southern Sudanese may not realize the full difficulty of nation-building. “The real danger in the south is that they do become like Somalia,” said Northwestern University Political Science professor William Reno. Reno fears optimism about independence may be the only glue that holds southern Sudanese together right now. “There are an awful lot of political divisions within the south itself,” said Reno. “And in fact, this has even erupted into fighting amongst southern forces in the past. So when it becomes an independent country, what guarantee is there that these factions will not re-emerge?”
 
Others argue that an independent Southern Sudan won’t even guarantee an end to fighting between the north and the south. Afaf Gubara Ahmed, a northern Sudanese who now lives in Chicago, is terrified about what the vote could bring to the oil-rich areas along the border. “Probably it will start the war there,” she said.
 
Ahmed herself feels betrayed by her southern brethren. “If South Sudan goes right now, for me, they let the rest of Sudan down,” said Ahmed. Though she was a northerner, Ahmed sympathizes with the southern Sudanese and joined their resistance movement years ago. She said back then, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement was not fighting for an independent South: They fought for ideals that would benefit the whole country -- freedom, democracy, and equality. “I don't know why they have to go. Why we don't just put our hands together and change our country? Why not?,” she said.
 
Ahmed said a separate south will make the northern regime even stronger, and will leave other persecuted minorities, like those in the Darfur region, in the dust. She also worries that it will cement Islamic law throughout the remaining north. Ahmed points to a YouTube video that incited international condemnation last month, which showed Sudanese police laughing as they whipped a woman publicly.
 
Ahmed says the worst part about the vote is that she poured her own time, sweat and tears in fighting alongside her southern brothers and sisters, but now they seem to have forgotten about her and others that oppose Sudan's government. She's just a voiceless northerner, she said, not even allowed to vote.