Southgate, Mich.–“I want you to print this,” said Sylvana Manzo, an Iraqi expatriate voting in her first Iraqi election. “I’m doing this on behalf of my uncles, cousins, and family in Baghdad. And I am also doing this on behalf of the brave soldiers in Iraq who have given their lives for my people.”
This weekend, the antidote for the cynical, relentlessly negative media coverage of the Iraq war could be found here just south of Detroit, Mich.: the sight of thousands of joyful Iraqi expatriates going to the polls. Beginning at 7 A.M. Friday, they streamed here in cars, courtesy vans, and chartered buses. They were greeted by curbsides bristling with political signs just like an American election–except that they were all in Arabic. Inside a giant, converted warehouse, they marked their party of choice (out of 111) for the Iraqi national assembly, then were given an enthusiastic ovation from election workers–and an Arabic button that read: “I have voted.”
But this historic stateside event was something else, too.
It was an insight into the enormous logistical and psychological complexities of trying to plant democracy in a third-world nation half a globe away. Despite security only dreamed of in their native land, just ten percent of the estimated 240,000 eligible Iraqi Americans registered to vote (and at four other polling places around the U.S.) amidst the confusion and miscommunication of a hastily arranged election campaign compressed into just a few short weeks.
The mood in the Southgate hall was festive, not unlike the joyous feelings that brought thousands of Iraqis into Dearborn, Mich. streets in April, 2003 when Saddam’s statue fell. “For Iraqis, everything is reborn this day,” exulted Bashir Shallal, a poll worker who came to the U.S. in 1977. Nearby, a small boy, dressed in a robe and Arab headdress, paraded around the hall with a placard reading: “Vote for my future!” And at the building’s metal detectors, two boys in Detroit Pistons jackets carried balloons alongside women in formal dress, scarves framing their smiling faces.
Many here said their vote has already buoyed the hopes of their brethren back home. “I called my brother in Iraq after I voted,” says Bashir Shallal. “He told me that gave him a shot in the arm and would inspire him to vote Sunday.”
In a show of nationalist unity on Friday, Imam Husham Al-Husainy, an influential Shiite cleric at a Dearborn mosque, came here with a distinguished representative of the Chaldean community, Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim. “We are a Shiite and a Christian,” said Al-Husainy, “but today we are both Iraqis.”
But Al-Hussainy also embodied some of the misgivings that have crept into the Iraqi community since their historic “Independence Day” in April, 2003. Then the imam led a rally of Iraqis as they cheered George Bush and his liberating army.
Just one year later, however, Al-Husseiny was on the campaign trail for John Kerry, demanding that the U.S. withdraw its troops from Iraq.
“We don’t believe we have changed, Bush has changed,” Al-Husainy told me last October after accompanying Kerry-surrogate General Wesley Clark through Dearborn. “We supported the liberation, but not the occupation. The dictator is gone, but the dictatorship is still here.”
Echoing the sentiments of many Iraqi Shiites who contend the U.S. should have withdrawn immediately after toppling Saddam, the cleric said: “The country is in a disaster. By not having elections immediately, we have encouraged terrorists to come over. We feel cheated, betrayed. The brave soldiers who did their job are now ruining it.”
After voting Bush in 2000, Al-Husainy pulled the lever for Kerry last fall. But his annoyance with the president has not diminished his enthusiasm for the voting process Bush set in motion.
Ali Bazony, a Shiite who emigrated here from Karbala in 1993, was one of many voters who took advantage of election seminars organized by mosques like Al-Husainy’s to prepare them for the voting process. “I attended two conferences,” said Bazony, accompanied by his wife and two small children. “They taught me that the best way to fight terrorism is to vote.”
“We also told people it was their spiritual duty to vote,” explained Imam Al-Husainy. “Shiites believe in voting. It is the natural way to select your interest. There is a verse in the Koran which reads: ‘no enforcement in the face.’ That is, no one should force you to do anything. We vote together, and then we can live together.”
But despite these education efforts, the International Organization for Migration–which ran the worldwide Iraqi balloting–reported that only ten percent of eligible voters in the U.S. had registered.
Andrew Acho, a Chaldean voter, said he is not surprised at the low turnout. “Iraqis have never had an election so they are a bit unprepared to begin with,” he explained. “Add to that the hurry-up registration process, where to go, how to get there, and who to vote for–and it has been very difficult.”
Indeed, since most of Detroit’s 95,000 Iraqis live north of the city, few had even heard of Southgate, 30 miles to their south. That meant they had to travel here to register beginning in mid-January, and then return to vote this weekend. If a voter lived outside of Michigan, that task was even more daunting
“The low turnout is to be expected because of the mistakes and the lack of communication and organization,” said the Shiite cleric Al-Hussainy. “We were initially promised three polling places in metro Detroit, and we just got this one far away. They should have allowed us to register and vote on the same day.”
Detroit News reporter Greg Krupa also revealed anxieties among some voters. In a community where there is no history of democratic involvement, Krupa found, post-9/11 paranoia lent credence to wild rumors that voter registration was a ruse to strip Iraqis of their citizenship. And for a population where English is a second language and most people still rely on the anti-American Arab media for news, voter hesitation was understandable.
“There is an anti-election media,” said Abu Muslim Al-Haydar, the coordinator of the registration site. “It’s had a substantial negative effect. Al Jazeera, especially, the impact of their coverage is that the election should not be supported.”
If these kind of anxieties exist in the United States, one can only imagine the difficulties that exist in the much harsher voting climate of Iraq.
Nevertheless, the optimism of Iraqis voting in Southgate was undeniable. They were confident that their vote will make a difference, and that a new day is coming to their native land.
“I asked my family in Iraq today how they feel about the threats there,” said Tom Hurst, a Baghdad native who returned to Iraq for six months in 2003 as a translator with the U.S. military. “They say we have to vote even if we are killed. They say we are finally getting our opportunity to be free.”
–Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News and a freelance writer.