Sudanese refugees vote for new nation

Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Nadia Osman was quiet on the car ride back to Manchester on Saturday. She watched the snowy landscape go by from the backseat of the station wagon as her friend drove her, her husband and one other Sudanese refugee from the polling station in Massachusetts in the fast-fading light of late afternoon.

The calm and the silence - somewhat mitigated by the steady stream of pop music flowing from the car radio - came after weeks of excitement and giddy anticipation,

nervousness and a little disbelief. It culminated with Osman and dozens of other Sudanese refugees living in New Hampshire casting their ballot in what many of them believe will be the most critical vote of their lives: the referendum to make Southern Sudan an independent nation after decades of civil war with the north stretched into the longest - and one of the bloodiest - conflicts in the history of the African continent.

After a week of voting around the world, more than 3.2 million ballots were cast before polling centers closed their doors Saturday. It will take weeks to count the votes. While the official announcement won't come until mid-February, analysts expect the referendum to pass with an overwhelming majority.

As the ride back from the polling center wound down, Osman pulled a small digital camera out of her purse and turned it on, the glow from the display screen illuminating her face in the dark backseat. A broad smile flashed over it as she scrolled through the pictures she'd snapped just an hour ago: one of her husband signing in to vote, another of his feet and head peeking out from the pale yellow curtains of the voting booth, another of his thumb, stained with ink after being used to mark his vote on the ballot with a fingerprint. Then, pictures of Osman in the same poses.

She tapped the display screen with her finger and said in soft, deliberate English: "This is so important."

What is now Sudan was ruled by colonial powers for more than a century, and differences abounded in languages, religion and skin color; many northerners were lighter-skinned, spoke Arabic and practiced Islam, while the southerners were darker-skinned, spoke English and various tribal languages, and practiced Christianity or animism. In the 1920s, Britain codified these rifts when it declared the north and south to be separate colonies. But right before the English left Africa during the decolonization that followed World War II, it announced that the north and south would be one nation. Sudan has been at war ever since.

In a peace agreement signed in 2005, the president of Sudan agreed to allow the south to vote on its independence after five more years of forced unification, and he made good on his promise last week.

 Get out the vote

Leaders in New Hampshire's Sudanese community quickly formed a task force to dedicate themselves to educating local Sudanese about their right to vote in the referendum and guiding them through the registration process, all the while trying to allay fears that corruption in Khartoum would mean their votes would be destroyed or even switched.

"There was fear, that was the biggest issue," said Sarah Alier, a Sudanese refugee who lives in Manchester and a leader in the Southern Sudanese Women's League. "And some people didn't go because of that. Some didn't vote."

But many did vote. Alier estimates she and others in the task force helped more than 80 people register in December and then vote in last week's election. Both had to be done in person in Arlington, Mass., one of seven sites set up across the country.

Alier tackled voter recruitment with a zeal not unlike the grassroots movements during the Kennedy and Obama campaigns.

"As soon as I heard there would be a vote, I started working," she said.

In early November, she drove house to house around Manchester - where the largest number of Sudanese in New Hampshire have settled. She taped a small piece of paper to each family's door that announced the referendum vote was really happening and that it will include the diaspora. It also listed a phone number - Alier's - and days and times when they could call for more information.

Alier set up a conference line and fielded questions from callers for hours each morning and night every Tuesday and Friday for a month. Sometimes two people would call, sometimes 50, but she would always answer. When she realized most questions were concerns about the legitimacy of the vote, she recruited an official from the Southern Sudanese Referendum Commission, an intergovernmental agency that coordinated the vote along with the Organization for International Migration, to answer calls on some days and assure people their vote would be counted properly.

"I told people that if we don't vote, we will make the people living in southern Sudan who did vote look foolish," Alier said.

 'This is personal'

South Sudanese, both in Africa and abroad, could cast their vote from Jan. 9 though Saturday. On the first day, the task force coordinated with Grace Episcopal Church and St. Anselm College in Manchester to provide bus transportation to the polling site. Dozens arrived for the ride, singing and laughing and waving Southern Sudanese flags.

The small group that voted with Osman on Saturday represented the last of the stragglers - they placed their thumbprints on the ballots just hours before the polls closed. Later that night at a community gathering held in her friend's home in Manchester, Osman met up with many of the people who had been in the first wave of voters a week before.

Women shuffled in and out of a room off the kitchen of the house, alternating between helping to prepare food, tending to the children and watching the news reports on Al Jazeera's English language broadcast. Images of the polls closing around the world flashed on the big flat-screen TV while the ticker tape ran the headlines in Arabic across the bottom of the screen.

Passionate discourse came in bursts, with heated Arabic flaring up, dying down and then starting again. "It's not arguing," explained Aiesha Elmhger, 47, as she offered honey-flavored pastries called fatira, still warm from the frying pot, to everyone in the room. "It's just excitement."

Elmhger took out her laminated voter register card and declared, "I'm saving this to give my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren."

The women discussed the future of the country, wondering about how long it would take to build up infrastructure, government and international recognition if, when, the referendum passed.

"We might have problems at first, but it will not be a brutal country," said Victoria Bilkui, 39.

Like many other Sudanese refugees in New Hampshire, Bilkui came to New Hampshire in the late 1990s. Most spent years in Egypt, Kenya, Russia and other countries without a permanent home before getting news they'd been accepted to come to the U.S.

They fled religious persecution for being Christians in a country ruled by Islamic law. They lost spouses and children to the horrors of the 22-year civil war that promised no end. They left siblings and parents behind in a place they say became little more than a deadly desert wasteland.

"Everyone in this room has lost somebody," Bilkui said.

They also spoke about plans to move back, to help rebuild the country they love and make it a place the whole world would want to visit.

"We're born there, and our hearts are there. Our grandmas, aunts and uncles are there," said Rita Lako, 42.

Families with young children already in school in the U.S. may not be able to make the move, she said, but they can at least vacation there and show their kids where they came from.

The gathering was for a prayer service to honor the passing of a community member's relative, but as a late evening snow began to fall outside, the house was warm and abuzz with excitement from the polls closing and the anticipation of the vote count to take place in the coming weeks.

Before the services started, a woman stirred spices into a meat dish simmering on the stovetop while Osman set out food, arranging the deep foil serving pans on the table. With a still-quiet voice, she offered an explanation for the giddiness that pulsed through the crowded house like electricity.

"For us, this is personal," she said.

(Tara Ballenger can be reached at 369-3306 or tballenger@cmonitor.com.)