Nearly four million voters in southern Sudan, as well as Sudanese refugees around the world, are registered to vote Sunday in an independence referendum that is expected to split Africa's largest country in two. Southern Sudanese living in Chicago, Illinois say casting their vote is only the first step in what they see as a long and difficult process to establish their own country.
Early in January each year, hundreds of southern Sudanese refugees gather in Chicago to celebrate their birthday.
It is not their actual birthday, as many do not know their real birth date.
That's because they are the so called "Lost Boys" of Sudan, members of tribes from the south who lost their homes and their families during Sudan's second civil war.
Those gathered in Chicago are no longer boys, but men. And this year's birthday celebration is a chance to put the past behind them, and look to Sudan's future.
"This is the time that people will either unite Sudan or separate it," said Peter Bul.
Peter Bul helps to organize the annual "Lost Boys" celebration. He says he will vote for separation when he casts his ballot at a polling location in Chicago.
"Unity has done nothing for us, and so people will have to decide on what is good for them," he said.
"The people of southern Sudan are ready for this," said Richard Williamson.
Ambassador Richard Williamson was President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan.
"They've experienced grave marginalization, discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, region, for 54 years," he said.
Williamson says the people of southern Sudan deserve the right of self-determination, but he concedes there are outstanding issues that could prevent a peaceful transition to nationhood.
"Issues like oil revenue sharing," said Williamson. "Seventy percent of the oil is in the contested border areas in the south. The final border. Abeyi region. Citizenship. So the critical issues that would allow a peaceful separation have not been resolved."
Concerns of increased violence have not curbed Gabriel Dut's enthusiasm. He is president of the Chicago Association of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
"People are very, very excited about what is about to happen, and people have been waiting a very long time for this," said Dut.
Dut used the Lost Boys birthday celebration as a way to rally Sudanese in the United States for the upcoming vote.
We want to mobilize the people and tell them this is the time," he said. "This is the only time we are going to have to have this opportunity to vote for what we believe is going to be the final vote for the chapter of southern Sudan."
The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission says approximately 60,000 Sudanese living outside of their country are registered to vote in the referendum. Chicago is one of eight polling locations in the U.S.