Joy Nyoka and her three children were gathered in the living room of their Pitt Meadows townhome last Friday, half a world away from the images on their television screen of jubilant celebration, as the fledgling nation of South Sudan marked its independence from Sudan.
Throngs of singers and dancers paraded through the streets of the South Sudanese capital of Juba as the world’s youngest country celebrated its birth July 9 following a January referendum.
For Nyoka, who grew up in Juba, the scenes hit close to home.
Nyoka left her home almost 20 years ago to escape the bloody civil war that raged through the country.
“Words can’t express how happy we all are,” she says. “This means peace, finally. This means my family will be safe.”
Sudan has long been a fractured state with little connecting the North and the South other than geography. Northern Sudan is predominantly Arab and Muslim, while the South is African and Christian.
While much of the country’s natural resources reside in the South, it was the North that profited from them.
“In the North, we Southerners are treated differently, we’re considered a lower class,” says Nyoka.
Sudan has been in a state of civil war almost continuously since 1955. Many in the South have never known peace.
Nyoka’s parents were both refugees during the first Sudanese civil war, when the Anyanya rebel army first fought for Southern independence. The conflict ended in 1972 with close to half a million killed in the fighting, and a decade of relative peace followed.
“I was born then,” says Nyoka. “Many children were born in those years.”
The peace was short-lived, however. Tensions between the North and the South once again flared, and in 1983, the second
Sudanese civil war began, ultimately leaving two million people dead from violence and famine, while more than four million were forced to leave their homes.
Nyoka was one of them. As violence engulfed Juba, she was forced to leave her home at the age of 14, and soon became separated from her family.
Her parents, her brothers and her sisters were gone.
She was alone, in middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts since the Second World War.
Nyoka fled south on her own, along with millions of other South Sudanese, for the comparable safety of refugee camps across the border in northern Uganda.
She remained there for almost a decade, and soon met her aunt there, who helped her reconnect with some of her brothers and sisters and cousins.
It was also in the refugee camps where she met Isaac Hakim, the man she would marry.
After a chance conversation with a United Nations worker, Nyoka learned that because she had been separated from her family, she would be eligible for refugee status in Canada. She soon applied, and waited for three years as the bureaucratic process lurched to make a decision on her fate.
“I knew nothing about Canada, except it was safer than where I was,” she says.
During the years Nyoka waited, she and Hakim married and the two had a daughter together, who they named Keji.
Finally, seven years ago, Nyoka and Keji were granted permission to immigrate to Canada as refugees.
Hakim, however, would have to stay.
“It was a mixed feeling,” she says of arriving in Canada. “I was happy because I was safe, but I was so far away from my home and everyone I knew.
“I felt so alone.”
To make matters worse, Nyoka was two months pregnant when she arrived.
Hakim began the process of immigrating to Canada, but he was still in Uganda when Nyoka gave birth to their son, whom she named James.
The couple talked on the phone almost every day during their separation, which stretched on for years.
Adjusting to life in Canada was difficult, Nyoka says. The culture was so different from Africa, and not having any support made the adjustment all the more difficult.
She found work as a cleaner to make ends meet and sent money back home for Hakim, all the while caring for Keji and James on her own.
“There are no jobs in a refugee camp,” Nyoka says. “He had nothing, so I had to do what I could to support him.”
It wasn’t until 2006 that she was finally reunited with her husband.
“It was one of the happiest days in the world,” Nyoka says. “It was such a relief to see him again.”
The family was whole once more. Soon they greeted a new addition, baby Peter.
However, the family’s elation would soon turn to grief.
Just a year after arriving in Canada, Hakim suddenly passed away, leaving Nyoka without a husband, and her children without a father.
“He was sick for a day or two and we went to the doctor,” says Nyoka. “They gave him some antibiotics and said to go to the hospital the next day to get an X-ray.”
Hakim never woke up.
Nyoka returned to Sudan for the first time in 2008 to bury Hakim on Sudanese soil. It was the first time her children set foot in their homeland.
“They only know Canada,” she says. “It is strange, but they are Canadian now.”
For Nyoka and many South Sudanese expatriates around the world, the independence of South Sudan means hope that a stable peace will finally take hold.
While a cease-fire agreement was reached in 2005 with the Sudanese government, pockets of fighting have flared up intermittently since.
“For years, war could break out at any time,” she says. “I was always so worried for my family’s safety.”
Members of the South Sudanese diaspora gathered at Moody Park in New Westminster on July 9 to celebrate their homeland’s independence. Nyoka said her family in Juba stayed up past midnight to celebrate the birth of their new nation.
The Canadian federal government formally recognized South Sudan as a nation on July 9, and on Thursday, the UN admitted the country as its 193rd member.
Nyoka says while her homeland may be safe to return to for a visit, she is Canadian now, and doesn’t plan to move back home.
“I’m so thankful for the government of Canada, for standing with South Sudan and for making Canada feel like home for the South Sudanese here,” she says. “I had not seen peace until I came to Canada.
“I hope South Sudan will see peace, too.”