On January 9, the people of Southern Sudan will cast their vote for, or against, independence from the north. The referendum is part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace agreement between the South and the government in Khartoum. As many as four million people from Southern Sudan live outside the country, including NBA basketball star Luol Deng, who plays for the Chicago Bulls.
On a cold night in the city of Chicago, an icon in the Southern Sudanese community is preparing for an historic moment in his homeland.
Chicago Bulls basketball player Luol Deng, originally from Sudan, is registering to vote in the January 9 Southern Sudan independence referendum at a polling location in Chicago.
The 2.06 meter tall 25-year-old stresses the importance of the moment he will share with approximately four million other Southern Sudanese living outside the country.
"There's been a civil war going on for a long time, and a lot of lives were lost and a lot of people fought for this day coming up," said Deng. "It's just really important because the one thing that we got to do right now is put in your input, let your voice be heard. Make it out and make the decision and let your vote count so we can go forward."
The basketball forward's outlook on moving forward in Sudan is tempered by concerns the voting results could spark increased violence, or another civil war.
"Everyone is thinking about it," said Deng. "But like I said, that's going to come afterward. I don't think you can think about that so much right now - that's for other people to prevent it. That's for the bigger government to watch it and to watch the referendum to make sure the whole thing happens in peace. But you know as an individual and as every other Southern Sudanese just do your part. Go out and vote, just do your part."
Concerns of violence in Sudan have not slowed the steady stream of voters traveling to Chicago from across the country.
"This is one of the seven centers across the U.S. and its being facilitated by the International Organization of Migration which is has been implementing the out of country voting for the referendum," noted Agnes Oswaha, a Consular Officer for the Government of Southern Sudan's Mission to the United Nations. She is an observer at the Chicago location, which was a late addition to the number of centers in the United States where Sudanese could register to vote in the upcoming referendum.
"Given how the Southern Sudanese are spread across the United States, nearly they reside in forty states, so this center has been very crucial to those who live closer to the Chicago area," added Oswaha.
Oswaha says more than 200 voters registered in Chicago, the same location where Luol Deng will return in January to make his mark on Sudan's future.
When he does, he says he will also be symbolically casting a vote for another fellow NBA star who was a transformational figure in Deng's life. Manute Bol, also from Southern Sudan, taught him how to play basketball, and what it means to be from Southern Sudan.
"I think he would be out there trying to encourage everyone to go out there and vote," said Deng. "I think Manute showed all of us how much Sudan meant to him. Just since he started playing he always put Sudan out there and he always tried to put the attention on what is going on and was very successful in doing so."
Manute Bol did not live long enough to see the vote for independence in his homeland. He died on June 19.
"We miss him and wish he was here to see this happening," added Deng. "It's up to us now to follow his footsteps to where he started and just do our part like he did his part."
Despite concerns about violence, allegations of harassment toward media covering the process in Sudan, and issues with voter registration, the referendum is on track to take place on January 9.