STONE MOUNTAIN, Georgia (CNN) -- On the eve of South Sudan's first birthday, citizens of the young nation gather at a church in suburban Atlanta.
They sing in their local Dinka language, beat drums and pray to mark a year since South Sudan split from the government in the north.
Old and young attend the muted ceremony, a far cry from the boisterous celebrations heralding the divorce between the two Sudans a year ago.
The secession --- voted for by 98% of South Sudanese -- was part of a 2005 peace deal to end decades of a brutal civil war that left 2 million dead. South Sudan was finally free, albeit symbolically, from the Islamic government in the north.
In the sanctuary, an elderly man in dark glasses sits quietly, nodding his head occasionally as the speaker discusses the conflict between the two nations.
Later, he speaks his mind.
"I was very happy when we got our independence because I have seen many, many atrocities," says Malok Mading, 74, who lost loved ones in the war.
He is blind and quick to break into a smile on his rugged, drawn-out face. But despite his exuberance, he is pragmatic about the state of affairs in his homeland.
"Even though the north has undermined us, our government needs to work hard," he says.
"We need schools. We need infrastructure. We need farms to grow vegetables. The present government should listen to advice from the international community and learn from others' mistakes."
It's been a chaotic year for the world's youngest nation, and some say there is not much to celebrate Monday.
Long after the independence jubilation faded, a series of national woes remained, including crippling poverty, lack of infrastructure, tribal violence and corruption among its politicians.
Nathaniel Nyok is especially critical of the corruption.
"They don't know what it's like to be leaders --- they've never had a nation before," he says.
There is also a conflict with Khartoum, but South Sudan's military is woefully lacking as it faces Sudanese forces in border areas.
Nyok and his compatriots in America have been sending money home through their embassy to fund basic necessities for soldiers, including shoes, medicine and clothing.
Jacob Mach, who leads the Georgia branch of South Sudan's ruling political party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, says his country is going through growing pains.
"This is a brand new country -- there's a lot of need, and it's a huge and tremendous challenge," says Mach, 32. "It's going to take time to get to where we need to be. We are like a small child, learning how to crawl."
But despite the slow pace of change, South Sudanese retain hope -- though it's tinged with frustration over unresolved issues.
Among the biggest issues between the two are border demarcations and splitting of oil resources.
In April, the president of neighboring Sudan vowed to "never give up" the disputed oil-rich Heglig region after South Sudan seized it, escalating fears of their return to a full-blown war. The region's oil facilities account for more than half of Sudan's production.
Jittery world leaders implored the two to return to the negotiating table.
"Both Sudans should be enjoying bilateral trade," Nyok says. "We are like two brothers who live in different compounds. Just because they don't live together does not mean they should not have a relationship."
Nyok's hope for a relationship is undermined by the bitter impasse over economical issues.
South Sudan imposed an oil embargo against the north this year, leaving both economies struggling when South Sudan stopped pumping its oil through the north after the latter impounded its oil for transit fees.
Since then, they have not reached an agreement to restart the oil flow, spawning more problems for both nations.
Violence in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states has forced thousands to take cover in nearby South Sudan, exacerbating refugee problems. Some refugees end up at camps while others hide in forests and survive by eating tree barks.
Sudan says it attacks the states to quash rebels, most of whom fought alongside the South during decades of civil war.
As the young nation turns a year old, optimism remains despite the setbacks.
"A lot of people have been naive to think that the problems will be over in a year," says Deng Lueth, 27. "The most important thing is we have a country ... we have freedom. I'd rather be free but poor than rich and oppressed."
In the church parking lot, Mading gets help going home. One day, he hopes his real homeland will signify prosperity and peace.