Alex Oloya never imagined the day would come when he would be given a chance to vote on the future of his homeland.
Mr. Oloya, a construction worker who lives in Hamilton, is one of thousands of Lost Boys – a generation of young Sudanese who resettled in North America after being driven from their homes by a civil war that lasted two decades and resulted in the deaths of nearly two million civilians.
The 34-year-old husband and father of four felt compelled by his memories to register for out-of-country voting in this weekend's referendum on whether southern Sudan should seek independence.
When he was a child, Mr. Oloya was separated from his family during a violent raid by northern government forces on his remote village. "Everybody was running for their lives," he recalled. "I just went with the crowd." The people of Mr. Oloya's village had to endure a harrowing, month-long journey across the desert without food or water to reach a makeshift refugee camp in Ethiopia.
"It was so hot during the day that we would try to walk as much as possible during the night," Mr. Oloya said. "Many people died. I don't know how I made it."
But Ethiopia was also soon beset by conflict. Over the next 10 years, Mr. Oloya was displaced again and again, back to south Sudan, then to a camp in Kenya, and finally to a camp in Uganda, where he reconnected with grandmother and sisters. "They had already made a funeral for me. It was like I was back from the dead."
He eventually reached Canada with the help of an international aid organization.
"We've suffered so much and waited so long for this moment to come," said Mr. Oloya said of the referendum that begins Sunday. "It's hard to believe it's really going to happen."
Since mid-November, hundreds of southerners like him have descended on Toronto's York Weston community centre from across Ontario and as far away as Minnesota and Nova Scotia to register to vote.
The Weston Road voting centre is one of only two in Canada – the other is in Calgary. While the inclusion of the diaspora is an important component of the Sudanese peace process, only a minority of southerners here have registered. For the majority, accustomed to the corrupt and violent politics of their homeland, voting in this referendum requires a huge leap of faith.
But while the population of southern Sudanese in Ontario is estimated at between 5,000 and 7,000 people, the Toronto centre only registered slightly more than 900 voters. (About 2,300 southerners are registered in Canada overall.)
Centre manager Samuel Ciengkuach said the final tally is less than what he expected, but said it a positive result when all the factors are considered.
"People will call me in disbelief," he said. "They ask me, 'Can it really be fair?' We're trying our best to convince them."
Mr. Ciengkuach and his staff now face the difficult task of making sure that those who registered return to vote. If fewer than 60 per cent of all registrants cast ballots, the results will be considered invalid.
Efforts to raise participation levels have been undermined by the widely held belief that the north will attempt either to postpone the referendum or manipulate the results in favour of unity.
When plans for the referendum were first announced, the autonomous government of southern Sudan urged southerners living abroad not to vote, since it was unclear who would administer out-of-country voting. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission eventually contracted the International Organization for Migration to administer the referendum in eight countries outside of southern Sudan, including Canada.
But the IOM was hired only in October, leaving it little time to assure southerners of its impartiality and dispel rumours that continue to circulate about it in spite of the approval it has received from the southern Sudan government.
"People had already decided in their minds not to vote," said Machar Buol, chairman of the Toronto-based Sudanese Settlement and Community Organization of Canada. "The prevailing idea is that the results will be taken to Khartoum and announced there. There wasn't enough time for people to understand."
As a result, many southerners here who support independence are looking to their family and friends living in Sudan to fulfill their nationalist aspirations.
"Some feel the goal of separation is too important for them to get involved," Mr. Buol said. "They have more trust in the process inside the South. People here are pinning their hopes on what people in the South will do."
On a cold, windy weekend afternoon at the voting centre on Weston Road, however, Mr. Oloya was optimistic.
Mr. Oloya belongs to the Acholi tribe. The Acholi straddle the border between south Sudan and northern Uganda, though most reside on the Ugandan side. Mr. Oloya was able to register when a referendum identifier recognized the distinctive accent that is unique to the Acholi from south Sudan.
"The procedure was very good," he said. "I told them exactly what village I was born in, and the identifier could speak my dialect. I never thought it would be so simple, but it took less than five minutes.
"It gives me hope that things will finally change," he said. "I can't predict what will happen. I can only hope it should go well."
If the south gains independence and remains peaceful, Mr. Oloya said he may return to his homeland to help it rebuild – and to reconnect with the one member of his family that he has not seen in almost 30 years.
"When my village was attacked, my father was in Juba," he explained. "I haven't seen him since I was a boy. We spoke over the phone once, and he was just crying. I have to go back to see my dad."
Special to The Globe and Mail