The new voter: A young Arab-American feels duty-bound to vote
Syrian-born Omar Kurdi of Irvine, Calif., became a US citizen at age 15. A student activist, he gives much weight to the candidates’ foreign-policy stances, especially in Iraq and the Middle East.
Omar Kurdi grew up doing all the typical things of American boyhood: riding bicycles with neighborhood buddies, rollerblading, and getting swept up in game fads like pogs.Skip to next paragraph
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His pathway to the ballot box, though, has been more unconventional. The Syrian-born college student had to become a United States citizen first.
He cleared that hurdle early. At age 15, Omar went with his dad to the federal building in Los Angeles to have his picture taken. Because of his age, he didn’t have to be interviewed or be sworn in with his parents.
With citizenship comes the vote, and Omar says that he, being a “post-9/11 Arab-American,” feels an intense obligation to exercise that right. He cites “a pressure on the whole Arab community to be more involved, [which] means carrying on your responsibility through voting or whatever other means.”
Omar, who often visited relatives in Syria during his youth, appreciates firsthand the difference between elections in a democracy and a dictatorship. At 21, he’s already a seasoned activist for worker rights, Palestinian causes, and social justice matters – fully exercising the free-speech rights that he knows would not be tolerated in some countries.
That doesn’t mean he thinks his adopted country is perfect. The US doesn’t qualify, technically speaking, as a true democracy, Omar asserts in an e-mail follow-up to an interview, in part because “it disenfranchises people who lack access to political power – namely working class/poor people.”
He is not one who intends to be disenfranchised. Though this serious young Californian is not yet sure who will get his vote for president, it probably won’t be either of the major-party candidates, primarily because of their stances on foreign policy and the Iraq war. That means his pick won’t become the next US president, but that does not sap Omar’s enthusiasm for casting his first vote ever.
“I’m excited about voting ... because I think it’s a very crucial period in history, and the results of the decisions we make will be felt all over the world for years to come,” he says. “When the US prides itself on being the leader of the free world, it’s an added burden to live up to the standards that it sets for itself.”
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“It was to be only for a brief time; then we stayed 20 years,” says Omar, sinking his teeth into fresh-cut fries at an In & Out Burger just off the eucalyptus-lined campus of the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where he’s a student. Omar has come to love much about America after leading a hopscotch life from New York to New Jersey to Tennessee to Mississippi and now to California, where his family’s two-story suburban house in Irvine “pretty much fits the ‘Brady Bunch’ mold.”