BOSTON — A wizened South Sudanese woman, wispy gray hair poking from beneath her hat, shuffled along a snow-lined Boston sidewalk. When she neared the entrance of the polling station, she stopped leaning on her cane and brandished it over her head as if in a traditional tribal dance, eyes alight with a triumphant glow.
She didn’t stop to talk. She was on her way to vote.
Left in her wake, dozens of younger South Sudanese danced, clapped and sang, waving the blue, yellow, green, red and black flag of what probably will become the world’s newest country. As buses rolled in from New Hampshire, New York and Maine, the party grew, stretching nearly the length of the block at times.
In reality, it was a celebration that encircled the globe.
After decades of oppression from the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, the people of South Sudan, mostly Christians and animists, have voted this week on whether to declare their national independence from the largest country in Africa. In recognition of the fact that an estimated 2 million southern Sudanese live outside their country, polls opened in eight countries around the world.
“My sister called me today from Sudan to remind me to vote,” 28-year-old Elijah Dut said, looking dapper in a tailed tuxedo. “She’s casting her vote there.”
Dut fled the country as a child, but, like many other members of South Sudan’s diaspora, still feels a strong connection to the country, sending money back for his family’s survival. A few feet away from him, Khor Chuil, 30, clapped and danced in a circle with several friends, his towering frame — closer to 7 feet tall than 6 — bundled in wool to ward off the biting New England cold. Chuil once fought as a child soldier. Now, he studies business at University of Southern Maine, works at a Lowes store and sends monthly checks back to his family in Sudan.
“We all do,” he said. “I send them money every month, because if I did not, they would starve.”
The 2 million southern Sudanese in the diaspora is a significant amount, considering that about 4 million have registered to vote in South Sudan. The diaspora community plays an important role, according to Mari Fitzduff, professor and director of the masters' program in coexistence and conflict at Brandeis University.
“The collective support of the diaspora community in offering nation-building skills can be critical in the startup of a new state,” Fitzduff said. “However, returning diasporas can also be a significant source of tension, particularly if they accrue much of the new power that comes with the development of a new entity.”
Polling points for the diaspora have been set up in eight countries: Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. Eight stations have been set up in the U.S., where about 150,000 South Sudanese live. Of these, only 8,790 registered to vote, according to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission.
The low percentage of registered voters is due to several reasons, according to Agnes Oswaha, an officer with the government of South Sudan. Getting transportation to the polling centers presented a hardship to many. Since referendum rules required at least 60 percent of registered voters to cast their votes in order for the referendum’s legitimacy, many Sudanese decided not to register in the first place for fear they would not be able to get to a polling station, she said.
The split and subsequent long-term reduction in violence likely will lead to a large influx of returning refugees, but not from the U.S., according to Martin Daly, a Maine-based historian who has written about Sudan for decades. The biggest number of returning refugees likely will come from camps in Sudan’s neighboring countries.
“The infrastructure in the south is very primitive,” Daly said. “There’s virtually no education system, very little in modern conveniences … it’s not, at least for a while, going to be a place where people, say, in Waltham, Massachusetts, would find it easy to live.”
Robert Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation, agreed, but said that even short return visits from the Sudanese diaspora will have an effect on the country.
“They are not going to go back permanently, but they are playing a modernizing role, because many of them have lived 10 or 20 years in the U.S.,” he said.
Human rights groups are gearing up for potential violence following the referendum. Possible interstate flashpoints include which country the city of Abyei should be in, or exactly where the border will fall. However, most violence after the split likely will arise from power struggles between tribal groups within the respective nations, according to Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.
Voters echoed her concerns.
“I think the violence will not go away immediately,” Dut, the nurse from New York, said. “We still have a long way to go; this is really the easiest part.”