Iraqi exiles in Springs long to vote

January 19, 2005
Runak Rasheed has voted once in her 56 years. She didn’t want to; there was no doubt who would win. “Whatever you write, it will be Saddam,” she said.
But the Iraqi government wanted it to appear that Rasheed’s people, the Kurds, supported Saddam Hussein. Government henchmen forced her to a polling place, she said, and made sure she wrote the correct name. Now she and other Iraqi expatriates living in Colorado Springs say they desperately want to cast their votes in Iraq’s coming election for the Transitional National Assembly. The assembly will draft a permanent constitution for the country and elect a president. For Rasheed, who came to Colorado Springs in 1997, the chance to vote represents not only a step toward freedom, but also a stand against the leader who once ordered her death. “I wish I was 100 (people), not one. I would vote 100 times,” she said. She probably won’t get to vote at all. Rasheed said she wrote to the Iraqi Embassy several months ago, seeking information about voting. No one replied, and she didn’t learn anything about the voting process until recently. Election organizers have established 75 polling places in 14 countries outside Iraq so that Iraqis living abroad may take part in the election. They include five polling places in the United States — Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Iraqis here who wish to vote must travel twice to one of those cities — first to register, then to vote Jan. 28-30. The registration period began Monday and ends Sunday. Monday, about 18,000 Iraqis worldwide — including 3,270 in the United States — registered to vote. Rasheed and Farman Abdulla, an Iraqi Kurd who came to Colorado Springs in 1999, aren’t likely to join them. Nor are any of the other 20 or so Iraqi families they know in this city. “We all want to vote,” said Rasheed, who teaches an Arabic course at Fort Carson for the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. “I never vote in my life,” said Abdulla, 41. But they can’t afford to leave their jobs or spend thousands of dollars traveling twice to another city, said Abdulla, adding that he knows many other Iraqis in the same situation. “Everyone is calling me, saying ‘What do we do?’” he said. The original plan was to open only one voting center in the United States, in Washington, D.C. Organizers decided to expand that to five centers but aren’t able to do any more, said Jeremy Copeland, spokesman for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting program. Because the decision to offer out-of-country voting was made a short time ago, Copeland said organizers faced a decision to either allow some Iraqis outside the country to vote, or none at all. Of an estimated 360,000 Iraqis in the United States, about 240,000 are believed to be over 18, the voting age. “We decided to make it possible for some,” he said. “We recognize Iraqis are very eager to take part in the election, and that some will not.” Organizers should have opened a voting center in every state so more people could participate, Rasheed said. She arrived in Colorado Springs as part of a large group of Kurdish refugees in 1997. Thousands of Kurds were killed, tortured and imprisoned during and after the Persian Gulf War. Rasheed said she was working with an American aid organization when Saddam declared that Kurds working with the enemy should be put to death. She hopes the election will lead to a better life for Kurds. “We want a free Iraq,” she said. Adding to the Iraqis’ dismay is that they haven’t been permitted to become naturalized U.S. citizens, although they said other family members have been. “We are stuck between two oceans,” Abdulla said. “We can’t vote in the U.S. We can’t vote in Iraq. “But I vote in my heart.”
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