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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Rachael Atem holds her daughter Adhieu Deng as South Sudan Independence Day is celebrated in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 13, 2013.
We want our kids to know where we come from — our culture, how hard we lived back there. —Sarah Dak

SALT LAKE CITY — On July 9 two years ago, Sarah Dak’s home country of South Sudan won its independence.

Ten days later, she gave birth to her daughter. She named the girl Nyamal, or peace, to commemorate her country’s freedom.

Saturday, Dak joined with as many as 100 others from South Sudan at the Utah State Fair Park to celebrate the second anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. She dressed in traditional African dress, with Nyamal playing at her feet.

“For special parties, we always dress like this,” Dak said.

She was 26 when she came to Utah in 1994. But it didn’t diminish her joy when South Sudan became its own country in 2011.

“We want our kids to know where we come from — our culture, how hard we lived back there,” Dak said, noting that all but two of her children were born in the United States.

Dak said she and the others from South Sudan are grateful to those in Utah who have welcomed them.

“We want to thank them for what they’ve done for us,” she said.

Hers was one of many statements of gratitude expressed at the independence celebration. Shadow Woli said he has to thank God for freeing his country as well as his fellow countrymen who struggled for South Sudan’s independence.

“Finally we are out from under the oppression,” he said. “We’re grateful it brought us to this country. … I pray that the joy will continue, that this celebration will help us be mindful of the blessings God has given us.”

Atem Aleu, of the South Sudanese Community Association of Utah, said there are about 1,000 refugees from South Sudan in the Salt Lake area and that they are a close community. Celebrating Saturday was like “being together as one family,” he said.

Though they try to gather each time someone moves to Utah from South Sudan, the independence celebration is special.

“It’s a real big gift to us,” Aleu said. “It’s also a payback, because we lost so many people, three million people, in the war. God does want us to have rights after so much struggle.”

Yuom Riak said Sudan was “terrible.” She lived there for 20 years before leaving first for Egypt and then the United States.

“Because of the fighting,” she explained. “Sometimes you stayed without food. Not like here… Sometimes the power was out for two or three days.”

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As the numbers of South Sudanese swelled from 50 to more than 100 as they celebrated Saturday, Aleu said he expected there would be more and more as the night progressed. There were speakers and games and a performance by a group of four teenage girls who had dubbed themselves the “unique Afrique dancers.”

Lula Deng said it was their first performance, but that she wanted to do something for her home country’s independence day. She moved here when she was 11 months old, but has still been back to Sudan and joys in its freedom.

“It feels like an accomplishment for my country,” she said.

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