PORTLAND – The city’s Sudanese residents have held an annual Feast for the Children for 15 years, celebrating their culture and raising money to build schools in the war-torn region they left behind.

The banquet planned Saturday will be different. It will be the first since January’s historic vote in favor of independence for southern Sudan.

“There is a lot of excitement,” said Robert Oryem, a leader in Portland’s refugee community. “For the first time, we will have our own nation.”

While hopeful, many Sudanese worry about the fragility of the new nation and are troubled by not-so-distant memories of political tension and violence.

The 16th annual Feast for the Children is scheduled Saturday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The dinner, with traditional Sudanese food, music and dance, will be open to the entire community as a way to celebrate the connection between Maine and Sudan.

The event is organized by Aserela Maine — the Action of Self Reliance Association — which hopes to raise enough money to complete a modern primary school near Sudan’s border with Uganda. Civil wars left the rural region without infrastructure or schools to serve the population that is slowly returning to southern Sudan to resettle and rebuild.

Edward Loro, a refugee who lives in Portland, was a member of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission and helped organize voting by refugees in Boston and Washington, D.C. Five buses carried Portlanders to Boston for the vote in January.

Voters in Sudan, the United States and elsewhere overwhelmingly supported independence. Now, Loro said, people are preparing for the official independence day — July 9. “A lot of people want to be part of that history,” he said.

But Loro, who will speak at Saturday’s dinner, said he and others are worried about the potential for violence and political tension in the transition to a new, independent government.

Loro initially planned to go to Sudan for the independence celebration, but will instead celebrate here in New England, he said.

“I really would love to go.” But, he said, “I’m actually very leery about the situation right now — the security situation.”

There is still no national army, he said, only various leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and their militias.

“That’s the number one challenge that we are going to face. If we do not transition from these factions into a national army, we are going to have a crisis,” Loro said.

Another concern is the continuing tension and violence in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, and the potential for that conflict to spread to the south.

Nevertheless, many refugees have returned since the vote to seek jobs and help rebuild, he said.

“People are really excited about this because this is what we have been fighting for,” he said. “There are so many issues. The people have put them aside just to see that the nation of southern Sudan comes to fruition.”

Portland’s Sudanese are doing their part by building a modern eight-classroom school, to replace outdoor classrooms in Kit, between Juba and the border with Uganda.

Teams from Maine will go to southern Sudan starting in May to train teachers and organize enrollment, said Alfred Jacob, a leader of the effort and an organizer of Saturday’s dinner. The school is expected to open by July, he said.

The new nation clearly needs new schools, said Oryem, chairman of Aserela Maine.

“During the civil war, not so many people were educated in southern Sudan,” he said. “I believe it is one way to bring peace.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]

 


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