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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Iraqi-Americans split on voting in historic election

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Yousif Shikwana, owner of the Lagrange Food Center, is a native of Iraq and an American citizen since 1983. He will join Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries participating in the Jan. 30 election. Yousif Shikwana, owner of the Lagrange Food Center, is a native of Iraq and an American citizen since 1983. He will join Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries participating in the Jan. 30 election.
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

In their lifetimes, Raid Shikwana, his father, and grandfather never voted in their native Iraq.

He voted for the first time on Nov. 2, after becoming an American citizen.

Now, two months later, Mr. Shikwana, 39, of Toledo will vote for a second time, as thousands of Iraqi-Americans prepare to head to the polls to vote in Iraq s national elections on Jan. 30.

Registration began Monday in five American cities Southgate, Mich., Chicago, Nashville, Washington, and suburban Los Angeles and runs through Tuesday. Voting will begin for Iraqis living outside Iraq on Friday and continue until the Jan. 30 election for a 275-member assembly that will draft a constitution and choose a president and two vice presidents.

Mr. Shikwana, an Iraqi army veteran who immigrated to the United States in 1993 and joined his brother, Yousif, in the grocery business in North Toledo, plans to register to vote today at the Southgate center.

All my friends are going to vote, he said. For me, it s very important. [My family] in Iraq never voted.

Yousif Shikwana, 56, owner of the Lagrange Food Center on Lagrange Street, is equally moved by the opportunity, which he calls one of the greatest moments in his life. He recalled voting in his first presidential election in 1984 a year after he became a U.S. citizen. He also recalls the day the statue of Saddam Hussein was felled in Baghdad. The Iraqi election rates with them, he said.

If you asked me three years ago if one day I would vote [in an Iraqi election], I would say you are dreaming.

Yousif Shikwana, who along with his two sons planned to register today in Southgate, said he is one of about 100 to 150 Iraqis living in the Toledo area. The majority of them, including the Shikwanas, are Assyrian Chaldean, an ancient Christian sect. By contrast, there are about 120,000 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans eligible to vote in southeast Michigan the nation s largest Iraqi-American population center.

Voter registration is open to those 18 and older who are present or former Iraqi citizens, those who were born in Iraq, and those whose fathers were born in Iraq even if they ve lived their entire lives in America.

Abdulrasul Al-Hayder, an Iraqi-American from Detroit, oversees registration and voting at the Southgate center for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting program.

He said Iraqi-Americans have been traveling from as far as Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to register.

Some Iraqi-American communities are organizing bus trips for elderly, disabled, and others who can t drive.

Some have questioned the involvement of Iraqi-Americans in Iraq s election.

Mr. Al-Hayder says Michigan s enormous Iraqi community could have an impact on the election, which includes six Detroit-area Iraqi-Americans or refugee Iraqis on the ballot. He declined to name them for security reasons.

This is a historic occasion. Even if you are away from your country, it s still our nation, the country of our childhood. Our memories are there, he said.

Yet not all Toledo Iraqis share Mr. Al-Hayder s and the Shikwanas enthusiasm about voting.

Sarki David, a Toledo restaurant owner who left Iraq 40 years ago, said he and his family will not be registering to vote in the Iraq election.

I m so far removed from life there, I m just not interested, he said.

Abid Al-Marayati, a University of Toledo political science professor who left Iraq more than 50 years ago, said he doesn t feel it is his place to vote because he is a citizen of the United States.

I still have an emotional attachment, but I m not going to vote one day in the U.S. elections and then one day in the Iraqi elections, said Mr. Al-Marayati, a Shiite Muslim.

The professor, though, believes it s a positive step for Iraqis to head to the polls to select their own leaders.

The problems of Iraq have to be solved through the ballot, he said. I don t think it will go smoothly. Already you have opposition to it. Unfortunately, I feel bad for what the people of Iraq have had to go through.

Nael Hamdi of Point Place, a Muslim who was raised in Baghdad, has a stronger view.

I personally think it s unethical and immoral for people living in peace and tranquility in this country to vote for a government that is going to affect the lives of people living under bombs and terrorism, he said. You want me to elect a government that is not going to affect me? It s just not right.

Mr. Hamdi, a former businessman who is disabled, said his sister who lives in Baghdad told him during a phone conversation on Monday that she is not going to vote.

She s not secure, and she doesn t know who s running, he said. They are living the most horrible, miserable life.

Mr. Hamdi said he sees no end to the violence and corruption in Iraq, which he believes will undermine any attempt at democracy.

It s like constructing a building on a sand foundation; sooner or later it will collapse.

Lewis Babona, owner of GM Food Mart on North Detroit Avenue, said initially he was not going to vote but changed his mind. Still, he remains skeptical about Iraq s future, in particular for the country s Christian minority, which he says is about 3 percent of the population.

The country is going to be violent forever and ever. And even if anything good happens there I m not going to live there, said Mr. Babona, who served in the Iraqi army and left Iraq for Canada in 1984.

Yousif Shikwana is not only voting, he s campaigning for Yonadam Kanna, an Assyrian Chaldean from his native homeland in northern Iraq. Mr. Kanna is a member of a coalition of candidates that forms a single group. There are about 100 such groups that include 7,200 candidates, Mr. Shikwana said.

Candidates will be selected to the National Assembly based on the number of votes their group receives. The more votes a group receives, the more of its candidates in the final 275 that form the assembly, Yousif Shikwana said. And each group places their candidates in a particular order. As first in his group, Mr. Kanna has the best shot at joining the assembly.

Mr. Shikwana s viewpoint differs considerably from that of Mr. Hamdi.

I m asking Iraqi people living in America, please vote for your brothers and sisters in Iraq. When you vote, you say no to terrorists.

Blade staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this report.

Contact George J. Tanber at: gtanber@theblade.comor 734-241-3610.



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