Alex Bakumba estimates there are thousands of South Sudanese living in Canada who share similar stories to his.
Most are stories about surviving a deadly civil war and leaving their homes to find peace.
Between 1983 and 2005, South Sudanese were forced by war, starvation and religiously-motivated killings to flee their homeland. Often they had to walk more than a thousand miles to the relative safety of refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda.
After many years living in the camp, some received permission to immigrate to Canada and other countries.
And even though they were welcomed, many hope to return one day.
“It is a common story among the South Sudanese living here,” said Bakumba, who was 11 years old when his family fled their village.
“I was born in 1981 so most of my experience was growing up in war. I knew nothing but war and suffering when I lived there. You never knew what was going to happen the next day,” said Bakumba, who came to Canada in 2002 after spending a decade living in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Now a settlement counsellor for Immigrant Services of B.C. in New Westminster, he is one of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 South Sudanese to come to Canada and escape the civil war that killed as many as two million.
But today there is hope of one day returning, he said.
The central Islamic government, based in the north, has held an uneasy truce with the south for the last five years. And Bakumba feels there could be a lasting peace if the southern region were allowed to form its own nation.
That separate state could be established soon. On Jan. 9, all South Sudanese adults, including those in Canada, are allowed to vote in an independence referendum.
Playing a crucial role in encouraging B.C.’s South Sudanese to vote is the South Sudanese Association of B.C. (SSABC). Bakumba and SSABC president Gemma Koul from New Westminster are reaching out to the 1,200 South Sudanese who live in the area to vote.
But Koul is finding some of her people are considering not voting because they fear the election could be fraudulent.
“You don’t want to vote if your vote won’t go the way you want it to go,” said Koul.
She believes the referendum will not be rigged and tells people their votes will count. That’s because the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an independent non-government organization, is responsible for international polling stations in Canada and seven other nations. Those ballots will then be counted in the referendum, being overseen by the United Nations.
Another difficulty she sees is the Canadian polling stations are in Calgary and Toronto, cities with the largest South Sudanese populations. Many people can’t afford to make the trip to vote, said Koul.
Fortunately the IOM, after hearing these concerns, recently established a polling station in Seattle. Many local South Sudanese are choosing to vote there, said Bakuma.
“Most of us are already Canadian but we will vote,” he said. “Then we will find a way to contribute to develop the nation.”