Dominic Deng Diing, a South Sudanese refugee who ran from his burning village at age 6 and now lives in Buffalo, N.Y., says he finally feels ready to go home – for the first time since he fled in 1987.
“The time is right with this referendum,” says Mr. Diing, referring to the January vote promised in the 2005 peace deal between the Sudanese government and southern rebels that ended decades of civil war. The referendum revealed an overwhelming preference to divide Sudan into two nations, granting independence to the autonomous southern government that has operated since 2005.
Driven by familial obligations, nationalism, and a desire to help strengthen the new country’s foundation, many of the 26,000 South Sudanese now living in America say pending independence has brought the moment they have been waiting for.
“I feel I must go and stand where our house was,” says Diing.
Since the referendum, about 50 people each week have contacted the Government of South Sudan Mission to the United States and the United Nations in Washington, D.C., seeking help processing paperwork for their returns.
“People are so happy and want to go and contribute to nation building,” says David Choat, the mission’s UN and congressional affairs officer. “The government has been calling for the diaspora to return. Now that the war is over, we need different skills, not only fighting skills.”
Most reaching out to the mission are educated men like Diing, who holds a master’s degree in business. Many of the fathers and husbands who have called are prepared to leave their families behind in the US, says Mr. Choat. Almost all of the callers who have approached the mission are men, says Choat.
“As it is in our culture, women here are taking care of the kids and are the centerpiece for the families, but the men can work far away from home and it is not a problem.”
Clement Chan, a father of four, plans to move to South Sudan once he completes his business degree. He expects less competition in the job market, but knows that his current home of Manchester, N.H., remains a better place for his school-aged children.
“When I visited Sudan two years ago it was still difficult, but I thought I could live there. It wouldn’t be so for my children,” says Mr. Chan. “I saw people still drinking from the rivers, not having enough food, not enough education. That is my home, but my kids have not been exposed to a situation like that and it would be hard for them to live like that.”
Benedict Killang of Pittsburgh says his wife is “capable” and can care for their 7-year-old daughter when he returns to South Sudan this year to help his aging parents and, he hopes, find a banking job.
“I will send money, and [my family] will visit me from time to time,” Mr. Killang says.
Some say lack of money would prevent them from relocating, while others don’t want to risk starting over again in a fragile country.
Returning home isn’t an option for her, says Parisculla Yowal, a naturalized US citizen who lost three children during the war. “I think about visiting but do not have the money,” she says. “Without Social Security, I would not have anything.”
Diing has no wife or children to consider, so when he booked his plane ticket to Juba, South Sudan’s future capital, he thought mostly of his two sisters and mother, now in Uganda and South Sudan. He learned they were alive only after he arrived in the US in 2001 with thousands of other “Lost Boys,” children who had fled war-torn Sudan on foot to Ethiopia, and then to Kenya.
A friend had heard of Diing’s sister and connected them on the phone.
“My sister recognized my voice, but my mother had some doubt and said, ‘You don’t sound like your father,’ ” says Diing, his speech bright and high-pitched. “When I sent pictures she said, ‘Why are you so short?’ It took me two years to prove myself to her.”
Since reconnecting with his relatives, Diing has supported them, including the 34 orphans his mother has adopted. He also established a nonprofit organization, Aid and Care for Africa, which is building an orphanage for South Sudanese children.
“Going back home has been a dream for me, but I always said, ‘If I go, what can I go with?’ I need to build something with my hands,” he explains.
Just over six feet tall, Diing sits upright outside a recent conference in Richmond, Va., focused on including marginalized ethnic populations in South Sudan’s construction.
The chaos and slavery in Sudan – the conference’s organizer was himself a child slave – seem very far away here. Though Diing dreams of building a house in his old village of Makuac, in the county of Aweil, he won’t make a permanent move just yet.
“If I go now and live in South Sudan, I will be just like everyone else and will sit home and do nothing,” he says. “I don’t want to display South Sudan as a bad place to live, but it will be a hard thing, to support yourself. We will have to see.”