Middle Eastern refugees divided on how – and whether – to vote

By Dan Holtmeyer, Special to NewsNetNebraska

Jabbar Kaied, dressed in a suit, knelt on his hands and knees, touching his forehead to the carpet and murmuring in Arabic in the Nebraska Islamic Foundation, a mosque near Cornhusker Highway and 70th Street. A refugee who left Basra, southern Iraq, in 1996, Kaied was on his way to a funeral but had stopped at the empty building one afternoon to pray.

Across town at the Good Neighbor Community Center on 27th Street, Zainab Al-Baaj, who came to the U.S. from Basra in 1994, sat in her office, decoding forms and tracking deadlines for hundreds of other refugees and immigrants in Lincoln.

After arriving here, both Kaied and Al-Baaj eventually became proud American citizens with the right to vote for the country’s president. But the two have come to very different decisions about using that right.

Al-Baaj still holds her original home close to her heart, and she has grown tired of presidential candidates, like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, who often say one thing about Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East, then do something else. If they become president, she said, they befriend dictators one decade and attack them the next, as they did in Iraq with Saddam Hussein.

“Always going to be the biggest issue; that’s why I stopped voting,” Al-Baaj said, referring to American foreign policy in the Middle East. “I think most of the Muslim (refugees), they don’t want to vote, because they don’t know what the other person’s going to do.”

Kaied, however, said he had left Iraq and its politics behind for good and certainly would vote in November.

“Why should we care about those who don’t care about us?” he asked. “I have to care about my home, because this is my home now. … Nobody gave me a hand except the United States. So I love this country.”

The two Iraqis clearly illustrate a stark divide among Middle Eastern refugees who have become citizens in time for the presidential election on Nov. 6. Some remain tied to their former home; they stay out of American politics because of unfamiliarity or by choice. Others, though, have moved on from their former home’s concerns and can hardly wait for the election to arrive.

‘I WILL JUST STAY AWAY’

Like Al-Baaj, many refugees and immigrants feel the pull of their homeland even decades after coming to the U.S., said Justin Abdurrahman Wood, president of the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln mosque on North First Street.

American policy directly affects Pakistan, Iraq and most other Middle Eastern countries, for example, where many of the mosque’s members come from and often still have family, Wood said.

“It’s something that’s very real to some people here,” he said. “I would say a lot of people still talk their local politics.”

An Iranian refugee who earned his citizenship this past summer said events in the region, particularly in the north African country of Libya, had convinced him not to vote. He asked that his name not be used because of persecution in Iran of his Mandaean religion, which he feared could continue here.

“(Obama) didn’t handle this conflict very well,” the man said, referring to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, last month. “He’s just been saying ‘Sorry’ and ‘This is not our fault.’”

Obama’s approach, the Iranian man said, has hurt Obama’s credibility as a result.

“They don’t take the United States’ word anymore,” the Iranian man said. He couldn’t say if Romney would be any better, either, with his talk of attacking Iran if it refuses to back down from its nuclear program.

“I don’t want to blame myself for the wrong person,” the Iranian man said, echoing Al-Baaj. “At least for this four years, I will stand out and just stay away.”

Other new citizens from the Middle East said they will not vote because they don’t feel ready.

“Not yet,” said Zenah Swaiyeh, an Iraqi refugee who works with Al-Baaj at the Good Neighbor Community Center. She might join her husband if he goes to vote, Swaiyeh added, but for now, she doesn’t know enough about U.S. or Nebraska politics.

For Fuad Al-Ghareeb, an Iraqi refugee who became a citizen in 2001, voting simply isn’t a priority.

“I don’t care,” he said, adding he became a citizen for the freedom to travel that an American passport brings. Al-Ghareeb voted once or twice back in Iraq, but as for the U.S., he said, “I cannot right now.”

Whatever the reason, deciding not to vote isn’t unusual for American citizens, whether they’re naturalized or native-born. As few as one-third of all citizens will vote in the typical national election. But Middle Eastern immigrants might have their own reasons for joining this trend.

For example, Muslim immigrants and American Republicans often share a number of political opinions on family and morality issues, including pornography and same-sex marriage. But since Sept. 11, 2001, Republican conservatives in particular have treated Muslims as suspicious, foreign, even dangerous.

“Some really like Republicans,” said Jamal Othman, a Palestinian immigrant who came over as a student in the 1980s and is now a citizen, “but they disagree with (that attitude). So they don’t vote.”

 ‘THIS IS MY HOME NOW’

Despite all of this, however, some new citizens remain excited to vote, often doing so for their first time. Marjan Moshiri and Jamileh B., both refugees from Iran, said they became citizens specifically to vote.

“Of course it’s important to me,” said Jamileh, who became a citizen last August and volunteers at the Good Neighbor Center until she finds another job. She asked that only the initial of her last name be published.

“I have to (vote) – it’s my responsibility,” Jamileh said. “Now that I’m a citizen, I’m not thinking about Iran.”

Several refugees agreed that becoming a U.S. citizen meant fully joining in the American political fray.

“Sometimes I don’t care what’s happening over there,” said Nuwri Al-Kanass, an Iraqi refugee who now owns a bakery in Omaha, where he lives. The Middle East, he said, gave him nothing but a camp in the Saudi Arabian desert. The U.S., on the other hand, is where his five children were born.

“We are here,” Al-Kanass said bluntly.

Once these refugees and immigrants mobilize in national elections, they can become a unified political force. Despite disappointments over the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Muslim Americans who vote have become overwhelmingly Democrat supporters in the past few years, according to a 2012 report on American Muslims’ political attitudes from the Institute on Social Policy and Understanding. In the 2000 election, the majority supported Republican George W. Bush; by 2004, however, 75 percent supported Democratic challenger John Kerry. All of the refugees who planned to vote said they were Obama supporters or undecided.

The sometimes harsh rhetoric against Muslims – most often from Republican politicians – that drives some Middle Eastern immigrants to stay out of politics can also galvanize others to stay in, said Sergio Wals, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies politics and immigration.

“What might be driving that is they feel marginalized,” Wals said. “When that kind of rhetoric kicks in … you probably will start not making (those conservative opinions) a priority.”

For Jamileh from Iran, however, her participation in the election and support of Obama went beyond specific issues or political parties. She pointed to his childhood, when he spent years in Indonesia, as an example.

“He came here after many years and now he’s president,” Jamileh said. “I’m thinking maybe my kids in the future could become president.”

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