CHICAGO (AP) - Thousands of jubilant Sudanese refugees living in the United States turned polling places into victory parties Sunday with chanting, singing and flag-waving as they voted on a historic referendum that could separate their homeland, Southern Sudan, from the north and create the world's newest country.
In eight cities across the U.S., voters swarmed the makeshift polling places where the weeklong elections were being held.
In Chicago, basketball star Luol Deng arrived at the office-turned-polling station on the city's North Side to a hero's welcome, drawing cheers from the Sudanese waiting to vote when he briefly draped himself with a flag. One man yelled in response, "Hey Lu, that's a good color on you, man!"
Deng, a native of Sudan who moved to London as a child to escape the conflict in his homeland, has been encouraging people to vote on the independence referendum over the past few months. On Sunday, the Chicago Bulls forward said all he wants is peace and happiness for his country, which has been at war for most of his life.
"A lot of people have fought for this day, a lot of lives have been lost over this . . . and now we have a say," Deng said. "All we could do in the past is run. Now we're here today to show we're not running, we're here to make a difference."
Thousands of people both in Sudan and around the world began casting ballots on Sunday during the vote that will determine the future of Southern Sudan, one of the world's poorest regions that also is rich with oil. Southerners have long resented their region's underdevelopment and have accused the northern Sudan government of taking their oil money.
The independence referendum is part of a peace deal that ended the 1983-2005 civil war between Sudan's north and south that left about 2 million dead and forced about 1 million to flee the county's violence.
In the U.S., thousands of Sudanese traveled by bus and car to polling sites in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., Omaha, Neb., Dallas, Phoenix and Seattle to vote. Many of those voting are among the 3,800 war orphans known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Diing Arok, 32, is one of the Lost Boys. He left the Sudan in 1987, first going to Ethiopia, then Kenya, before coming to the U.S. Arok eventually moved to Phoenix to attend Arizona State University in nearby Tempe and is currently working for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
He said being able to vote made him remember those who died in Sudan's civil war.
"If I didn't participate in the war, then I have to participate in the voting," he said in a telephone interview.
The vote honors "those who died for the liberation of the country," he said. "It is very important."
Arok said he waited about 15 minutes in line but that others at the polling place told him the wait was two hours in the morning, as Sudanese from as far away as California and Salt Lake City came to Phoenix to vote.
In Nashville, Tenn., people were already lined up to vote when the polls opened at 8:30 a.m. at The Lost Boys Gallery just south of downtown. By mid-afternoon there was a line around the block and the small building was filled to capacity.
The mood was jubilant despite the below-freezing weather, with singing, flag waving, chanting and ululations.
As one man finished voting and dipped his finger in purple ink, he held it above his head and said, "This is my bullet! South Sudan is a new country!"
Ngor Kur Mayol, 30, was one of a group that drove up from Atlanta in vans and a bus. He said he left Sudan when he was about 11 years old, walking to Ethiopia with a group of boys. But he returned when he was 14 to fight in the war for the south.
"I did my part when I was a child soldier fighting for freedom," he said. "That's why I'm here today."
Many other Sudanese also traveled for several hours by bus and car to the nearest polling stations. Abbakar Mohamed was one of about 45 people who caravanned by bus from Portland, Maine, which is home to about 2,000 Sudanese refugees, to Boston on Sunday.
"This is something we've been seeking for a long time, almost 50-something years, so this is a great thing for us today," Mohamed, who first left Sudan 20 years ago, said by telephone while on the bus.
In Omaha, where hundreds waited in light snow and 20-degree temperatures, a couple of entrepreneurial Sudanese sold pro-separation T-shirts for $10 apiece. The slogan on the back of the T-shirts read: "The Last Teardrop South Sudan 2011."
Joseph Gembo, 44, who drove from Minneapolis, Minn., to Omaha to vote for separation, said nothing could have kept him away.
"We have been suffering for almost 50 or 55 years - just fighting. That is why it is better to us to be alone, to be another country," Gembo said. He said he came to the United States with his wife six years ago after spending three years in Egypt as a refugee.
"If we get our own country, the majority of us are going back," said Gembo, whose parents and brothers are still in Sudan.
To prove they are from Southern Sudan, voters had to show identification issued either by a Sudanese authority or by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees when they registered to vote last month. As independent observers watch, polling staff at each U.S. site will count the votes immediately after polls close on Saturday and announce them that night.
Southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for secession. A simple majority must vote for separation for the referendum to pass, but 60 percent of registered voters must cast ballots for the vote to be valid. Results will trickle in after polls close Saturday, but results won't be finalized until February.
Associated Press Writers Jay Cohen in Chicago; Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine; Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn.; Sue Major Holmes in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.