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Historic vote in U.S. brings enthusiasm

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HISTORIC VOTE IN U.S. BRINGS E ... 01/30/2005

Contra Costa Times

Section: News

Published: 01/30/2005

Page: a01

Keywords: Elections, Foreign

Historic vote in U.S. brings enthusiasm

An Iraqi expatriate had tears in his eyes after voting in Irvine

 

Byline: Jack Chang

TIMES STAFF WRITER

 

IRVINE -- It was a simple act, dropping a folded piece of paper into a

clear, plastic container Saturday afternoon, but Safa Hassan had waited

all his life for that moment.

Dressed in a gray suit for the occasion, the San Jose software engineer

left the voting station in a daze. The Baghdad native had just cast a

ballot in his native country's first election after five fearful

decades.

"How do you feel?" asked his wife, Alya, who had voted just before her

20-year-old daughter Zina.

"Great," Safa Hassan answered, tears welling in his eyes.

"Are you going to cry?" his daughter asked.

"No," he answered too late.

He tried to cover his face with his hand as he wept. His wife and

daughter moved in to comfort him with hugs and their own tears.

A sense of history being made and hope for Hassan's battered country

filled the old officers' club of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air

Station, where more than 2,600 Iraqis from around the western United

States had cast ballots since polls opened Friday. The Irvine site is

the only polling place west of Chicago and will stay open until this

afternoon.

"I feel like I'm reborn again," Hassan said after the tears stopped.

"This will be the last moment there will be tyranny. After this day,

there is no power in the world that will take us back."

Like Hassan, Pleasant Hill engineer Adel Kasim left San Francisco with

his wife and daughter early Saturday for the 7-hour drive to Orange

County.

The two families greeted each other in the polling site's parking lot

and marched in together to vote, past clusters of Iraqis waving their

country's red, white and black flag and posing for pictures.

"It's really a vote for a process in the Middle East, of bringing

democracy to the region," Kasim said. "Hopefully, this is a real turn in

the road for these countries."

But the day was not just about hugs and hope.

Hassan had slept badly the night before. He worried about his mother,

uncles and other relatives in Baghdad who had told him they would try to

vote despite threats of violence at polling locations.

As Hassan and his family prepared to leave Saturday morning, a

brother-in-law in Baghdad spoke to him through an Internet-based

telephone connection about the tense conditions in Iraq

"The situation is quiet now," the brother-in-law told a Times reporter.

"This election will be our step for freedom, and I hope the Iraqis will

participate."

"I just heard there was an explosion on the way to the airport," he said

before the line went dead.

During the drive down Interstate 5, Hassan talked about why he was

voting while some of his friends were boycotting the election due to

concerns about the ability of the country to hold an inclusive vote in

the face of daily violence.

In Irvine, a Canadian election monitor observed the polls, and each

voter had to dip his or her right index fingertip into indelible purple

ink to prevent people from voting twice.

Hassan spent much of the drive catching up on sleep lost to worries

about the election. North of Los Angeles, however, he took the wheel to

speed his family to the polls before they closed.

Choosing to participate meant the family had to sacrifice two weekends

for trips to Irvine, once to register and then to vote.

Hassan said he understood his friends' concerns, but he believed the

election was "a window of opportunity" for Iraqis.

"It's a moment when American interests and Iraqi aspirations are

meeting, so we should take advantage of that and make this change for

our country. This is the moment. Some friends say we should wait for a

safer time to hold the elections, but when is it going to be safer?"

Hassan, who is in his late 40s, ran a thriving software company in

Baghdad but left the country after the first Persian Gulf War to give

his children -- a daughter and two young sons -- a safer place to grow

up. They moved first to Ottawa, Canada, and then four years ago to the

Bay Area.

Although he had not personally suffered persecution under Saddam

Hussein, he said, his country had been held hostage by the dictator. Now

it was the time for the United States, the "policeman" who had caught

the dictator, to leave and for Iraqis to determine their own futures, he

said.

This weekend's vote was that first step, he said.

"What we're doing is historical, and we are not afraid of that change."

Several East Bay Iraqis had flown in for the vote, and about a dozen

van-fuls of voters drove down from Seattle and spent the week in

Southern California, arriving to register and staying to vote.

Once they had finished voting, people stayed in the parking lot, putting

out plates of orange slices and Hershey Kisses and coolers of water. One

convertible's trunk was decorated with a richly colored wool tapestry.

About 100 International Organization for Migration pollworkers had flown

in from as far away as Maine.

Iraqi expatriates drove hundreds of miles to reach the five American

polling places: Nashville, Tenn., Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and

Washington, D.C.. More than 5,000 Iraqis had voted Friday, and

organizers expected larger crowds Saturday and today. In Irvine alone,

3,900 people registered and 2,000 voted Saturday.

In Nashville, which has the largest Kurdish community in the nation,

about 20 Kurds celebrated after voting by dancing and waving flags in

the rain. The men and women broke into a line dance called the badine

with traditional music blaring from a car's speakers.

Children waved flags to signify Kurdistan, while several teenage boys

wore Iraqi soccer jerseys and had their faces painted like the national

flag.

"It is celebration because for the first time they taste the freedom of

this country," said George Khamou of Little Rock, Ark., who watched the

dancers. "This is really a big celebration for all of us here -- the

Kurdish, the Arabs, the Christians, everybody.

"All we say now is all of us are Iraqis, because we are all the same."

Nearly 26,000 people have registered to vote in the United States. Tens

of thousands more are expected to vote in 13 other countries during

balloting that runs through today, the same day as elections in Iraq.

One busload of about 50 Iraqis traveled from Lincoln, Neb., to cast

their ballots Saturday in Rosemont, Ill., about 20 miles northwest of

Chicago, while other voters arrived from Iowa, Missouri and Indiana.

In Australia, fistfights broke out at a polling station Saturday when a

group of Islamic extremists chanted slogans against those casting

ballots.

But in the United States, Iraqis were thrilled to be voting for the

275-member assembly that will draft Iraq's new constitution.

After the polls closed Saturday, Iraqis fresh from voting filled a

popular Persian restaurant in Irvine to celebrate the change they hoped

the election would bring.

"It's not just the end of Saddam that this day marks," said Saratoga

resident Hasan Alkhatib. "It's the beginning of a new state where the

people rule. The more I think about it, the magnitude of this is so

huge."

Surrounded by belly dancers and hundreds of diners feasting on kabob and

humus, Alkhatib said he was optimistic even after visiting Iraq in

November and witnessing the destruction there.

When he voted Saturday morning, 85 carloads of voters waited ahead of

him at the security checkpoint, which showed him that Iraqis are

enthusiastic about this first step toward democracy.

"The country is devastated now," he said. "The reality is we are taking

a step in the right direction. It doesn't get better until it gets

worse."

Jack Chang covers immigration and demographics. Reach him at

925-943-8011 or jchang@cctimes.com. Associated Press contributed to this

story.

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