Baltimore's Sudanese community is shrinking week by week, as scores of people have begun making plans to return to their African homeland.
Their hurry is understandable — they have fewer than four months to build a new nation.
Michael Lupai, president of the Southern Sudanese Community of Washington, a refugee support group, said that at its height, the local community of Sudanese immigrants numbered about 300. In the past few months, he said, that number has shrunk to 185 and is dwindling rapidly.
"They're heading back to do all the work that goes into creating a new country," Lupai said.
"Most of the people who have remained in the United States are women with children or the elderly. There's no question that those who leave are going to have to make sacrifices. This is a country so poor that people are living in trees, and they don't have clean water to drink."
He addressed about 100 Sudanese immigrants living in the Baltimore area Sunday afternoon at a combined prayer service and celebration held at the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Catonsville.
The group was commemorating the results of a referendum released last week that paved the way for an independent South Sudan. On Jan. 9, an overwhelming number of the current and former residents of the southern states — 98.83 percent — voted to secede.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has pledged to honor the results, and on July 9, the northeastern African nation is scheduled to be divided into two countries.
"This is something that people did not believe would ever come in their lifetimes," said Benaiah Duku, 53, of Baltimore, who helped oversee the portion of the referendum held in the U.S. "People came out in big numbers. They were orderly and emotional."
He told the group that of the 8,412 immigrants who voted in the referendums held in America, just 75 voted to remain tied to the north. Most of the current immigrants living in the U.S. fled here after 1980, when the first of two civil wars broke out. Intellectuals like himself and others were systematically executed.
"When the police began bringing you in for questioning, you knew it was time to go," he said. "You didn't say goodbye to your parents. You just left. Many people who waited too long disappeared."
Sarah Taban, 25, of Fairfax, Va., said that sentiment for secession is so strong because residents of South Sudan are "treated like fourth-class citizens in their own country."
"The Sudanese government favors the Arabs and Islam," she said, "and looks down on black people as slaves."
In addition, she said, many people living in the south are Christian and are deeply opposed to the imposition of Islamic law across their nation.
The speakers said that winning the referendum was just the beginning. Taban outlined the challenges facing the emerging nation: Ninety percent of southern Sudanese live on less than $1 a day, she said.
One in every five children dies before his or her fifth birthday, Taban said.
"South Sudan is the poorest place on Earth," she said. "We have absolutely no infrastructure — no roads, no hospitals, no schools. The list goes on and on."
On Jan. 9, Taban helped oversee the referendum held in New Jersey. One voter struck her in particular — a woman who walked into the voting booth accompanied by a photo of five men.
"I talked to her afterword, and she said that the men were her husband and uncles," Taban said. "They had been killed during the war. She said she was doing this for them."