Sudanese refugees wave the flag of southern Sudan after voting for secession… (Joshua Lott / For the Los…)
Reporting from San Diego — The Rev. Peter Lual gathered his flock of Sudanese exiles in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in suburban San Diego.
Before him stood former guerrillas and farmers, some bearing the intricate facial scars that are a badge of manhood among the major tribes of southern Sudan. Others were students and teachers before they were swept up in the bloodshed of one of Africa's worst civil wars.
They stood together in a circle to pray as traffic droned by and diners walked past on a cloudy Saturday morning.
"Our father, almighty God," Lual intoned. "We are your people, the Sudanese. … Lead us to peace."
Ahead of them was a six-hour drive to cast their votes in a referendum to determine whether their mostly Christian and animist homeland will break away from the Muslim-dominated north and form a new nation.
"For the first time, my country is giving me a voice," said Tereckah Najuwani, 25, who fled with her family to Uganda in 1993, eventually settling in the United States. "I can't miss this."
Najuwani drove from Los Angeles, where she works at a photography studio, to join the caravan east to the nearest polling station in Glendale, Ariz., just outside Phoenix. They gathered in San Diego, where hundreds of Sudanese have made new lives, many as security guards and hotel workers.
Among the group of 30, most had left their homeland more than a decade ago. They speak in American accents, and some have become citizens here. But they dream of returning home to help build a new country in a region riven by poverty, illiteracy, disease and tribal rivalries.
They piled into vans clutching coffees and breakfast sandwiches. Joseph Jok, a refugee case manager driving the lead vehicle, crossed himself and put on a CD of Dinka warrior songs.
"It's a historic moment," Jok said. "…a final ticket to liberty."
More than 30,000 southern Sudanese refugees have settled across the United States since the war broke out in 1983, claiming 2 million lives before a 2005 peace treaty. They started arriving in California in the early 1990s, most settling in San Diego, where community leaders estimate the population to be about 1,000.
For those who only knew life in some of the least developed regions of Africa, the transition was a struggle. John Kuek, 41, grew up in a small village and spent years living in tents in refugee camps.
"Everything in the U.S. was new to me," he said. A resettlement agency furnished an apartment for him and bought food. The first night he did not eat because he could not figure out how to use the stove.
"We used to cook using firewood. That's all I knew," said Kuek, board chairman of the Southern Sudanese Community Center of San Diego. Fewer than a third of the southern Sudanese in the U.S. registered to take part in the referendum. Mistrust in the process ran high at first. There were worries that the Sudanese government, based in the northern city of Khartoum, would steal votes to hold on to the oil-rich south. News that the ballots would be counted at the sites where they were cast when the weeklong voting finishes Saturday eased those fears.
But only eight cities had polling sites, all with larger southern Sudanese populations than San Diego. Those living in California would have to travel — first to register and again to vote.
The San Diego community center, which helped mobilize 149 voters, borrowed three vans from churches to take people to Arizona. Others volunteered to drive people in their own cars. Passengers contributed what they could for food and gas.
Shortly after 10 a.m. last Saturday, the first convoy was on its way. In the lead van, Mary Wari asked her fellow travelers about the voting procedures and the symbols on the ballot: two clasped hands for unity and one raised hand for secession.
"It's my first time, and I don't want to be confused," said Wari, 37, a gospel singer from the southern capital, Juba. During the war, shrapnel pierced her arm as she was drinking tea in front of her home one morning.
"It came down just like the rain," she said.
Agnes Hassan, 41, passed around a cellphone text message she received from a cousin in southern Sudan. A play on the Lord's Prayer, it read: "Give us in this country our daily peace and right. Forget those who have been oppressing us since 1819. Lead us NOT into UNITY!"
Hassan, who wore a red USC Trojans jacket on the trip, said there were family members she had not seen since a shell slammed into their home in 1989, sending people running in all directions. Her father vanished after the explosion, but it was too dangerous to go back to search for him.
"We are scattered all over the world," she said, "so I hope we will meet again in southern Sudan."
The caravan stopped for lunch at a Carl's Jr. in the desert town of Yuma. The large and boisterous group, speaking in a mix of English, Arabic and several African languages, drew curious looks from the handful of diners. Overwhelmed servers had to take orders twice.