Lual D'Awol cultivated a passion for rap and basketball while living in Baltimore. Today he is in Southern Sudan, which becomes the world's newest nation this weekend.
Southern Sudanese are returning to what will soon be the world's newest country capital _ Juba _ to a home many never knew. Some are finding the adjustment a challenge. Others, like D'Awol, are excited to be back.
"I chose to come early so I could be involved in the whole referendum process and to see the birth of our nation," said D'Awol. "I'm going to stay here. I'm not going to go back (to the U.S.) because I don't really have anything else that I need to do over there."
Through the decades of civil war fought by north and south Sudan, thousands of "Lost Boys of Sudan" spent years drifting throughout their country while fleeing bloodshed and famine before landing in the U.S., Europe and other African countries.
D'Awol, 26, was one of the lucky ones. He was born to diplomat parents who were abroad for much of the war. Born in New York City, he's now back in Juba doing work as an auditor for a project funded by the U.S. government's aid arm. A rapper in his spare time, his latest song is titled "Scattered Overseas."
His message to his fellow citizens: "I think they should come back."
More than 4 million southerners left their homes, many on foot, as two decades of conflict raged between Sudan's north and south. They ended up in neighboring African nations like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. A lucky few found refugee status in Western nations.
For those growing up overseas, returning can be a form of culture shock. Southern Sudan's infrastructure is elementary at best. The security situation, always tense, is worsening, particularly in north-south border areas. Nepotism and corruption are common.
But the desire to return home can override the challenges.
"I always wanted to come back and I always knew that I had to," said Mading Ngor. "After losing my relatives in the war I felt a sort of moral obligation to contribute to the country. I came also see whether there was a place for me in this new republic."
Ngor, 28, grew up in Alberta, Canada, where he studied journalism at Grant MacEwan University. He is viewed as an outsider here _ by the motorcycle taxi drivers and from relatives in the rural village where he was born. He is looking to balance both his Sudanese and Canadian heritage.
"I came as a journalist because independence is the story of the century and I wanted to be part of that," he said. "And to assess whether it's really home or not."
Southern Sudan voted in a January referendum to break away from the north, something that happens on Saturday. Excitement is growing in Juba as a day of celebration sought for decades becomes reality.
Not everything is rosy, though. One former Lost Boy who grew up in America's south has relatives in the government and guerilla-movement-turned-national-army said he could not have his name published due to that reason. But he warned that even though millions of southerners sacrificed their lives to win independence, an old African problem _ government corruption _ is increasing.
Southern Sudan will be born one of the poorest countries in the world. It has only a couple dozen miles (kilometers) of pavement. Literacy levels are low, and women who give birth are at grave risk because of a lack of medical facilities. But the south does have oil, and those in control of government funds appear to be growing in prosperity.
The former Lost Boy said leaders in Southern Sudan have gone from being the oppressed to the oppressor. He said as a trained accountant, he's seen by some government leaders as a threat, and not an asset.
"It's not only me, a lot of people who came back have been through that kind of experience," he said.
The country is growing in other areas, though. It now has a new national basketball team, one that Simon Mayen has joined. The 21-year-old grew up in neighboring Kenya but has returned to Juba.
During practice on a recent day in Juba, one of Mayen's friends gave an old pair of shoes to a 16-year-old aspiring player who said he had never had anything but plastic flip-flops in his life.
Mayen was born in Ethiopia, near the Sudanese border among the offspring of southern guerrilla fighters. He is the son of parents who played important roles in the south's liberation struggle but had the means to see to it that their son was educated during the war with the intent that he come back to contribute to the product of their hard-won struggle.
When he first began coming to Juba from Nairobi five years ago on his school breaks, he said he was "shocked" at what he found: "No buildings, nothing, no toilets, no drinking water, no electricity."
"But at the same time, I always knew, my dad has always been in the struggle, he's always been telling us about the one day when we will go home. He's an old man now," Mayen said. "He's always told me, 'We are doing what we are doing now for us to do more in the future.'"