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.

By , Staff writer

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    Faithful: Syrian-born Omar Kurdi, a Muslim, prays between classes at the University of California, Irvine. Political activism has been at the center of his college experience.
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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.

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.

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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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Damascus-born, Omar left Syria with his mother and sister at age 1 to join his father, then an endocrinologist, in New York.

“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.”

Except for summers in Syria, where he hung out with extended family and worked at his uncle’s package delivery business, Omar says he had a conventional American upbringing, with 10 years playing in the American Youth Soccer Organization to prove it.
His first memory of a US presidential election was Dole versus Clinton versus Perot in 1996, when he was a freckle-faced fourth-grader living in Mississippi.

“It stood out to me that here was this Texas billionaire who funded his own campaign and got a significant following,” says Omar. He contrasted that with what he’d seen of elections in Syria, where “a president is elected for life and then his son takes over.”

“When I was younger, I watched as President [Hafez] Assad won with something like 98 percent of the vote and I said, ‘Wow, this guy must be really popular,’ and my dad said the numbers were just ‘fake.’ ” As the years went by, Omar says, he grew to understand the “farce” that elections are in his birth country. “It’s laughable that they called the whole thing an election,” he adds.

By the time he was 15, his parents decided that US citizenship was in order. He, his older sister, and their parents had in the mid-1990s received the green cards so coveted by immigrants, expedited by the fact that his father had agreed, through a government program, to move to Mississippi to work in an area underserved by endocrinologists. By then, a younger brother and two younger sisters were already US citizens, having been born in America.

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Now a history/international relations major in his last quarter, Omar is active in three student organizations at UCI: the Muslim Students’ Association, the Worker-Student Alliance, and Students for Peace and Justice. He also spends 18 hours a week as an unpaid intern for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He sees that work as crucial to countering bias and hate crimes against Arab-Americans, which since 9/11 have “increased dramatically.”

Omar has devoted so much time to the student groups – organizing speaking events and protests – that he’s had little time for intramural football and no time for parties. He took part, for instance, in a campaign for better wages and health benefits for university food, landscaping, and dining workers. He didn’t consider it fair that those workers earned minimum wage while the president of UCI Medical Center was drawing a $600,000 salary. The campaign won wage hikes for the UCI workers, and the same issue is now percolating across other UC campuses.

A nondrinker and nonsmoker, Omar finds no allure in the college party scene. In fact, he’s never been to one. “If you are an activist, you have to be a social square,” he says. “There’s just not enough time for both.”

The issue is broader than how one spends one’s own free time, he says. Dedicated political activists can’t be too careful, he argues, asserting that US government informants have in the past infiltrated antiwar and civil rights groups and used women and drugs to distract and entrap activists.

Omar’s longtime best friend, Egyptian-American Yasser Ahmed, confirmed in a phone interview that he’s never known Omar to attend a party in high school or college. “It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. He’s way too serious,” says Yasser, who graduated from UCI two years ago and runs his own Internet publishing firm.

Omar aspires to be a lawyer – maybe international law – and is already studying to take the LSATs. Yasser, though, sees “serious, beloved professor” in Omar’s future. “He has always been more mature than the rest of those his age,” says Yasser. “Intellectually, he really stands out.”

All the work for the student activist groups has also cut into time for academics, Omar allows. “But it was worth it,” he says, “because these groups helped shape my college experience and made me more active in politics.”

Omar, Yasser, and others have started an informal club of like-minded activists who intend to keep exchanging information about issues they care about.

“I just think a citizen has to do more than just vote,” says Omar. “One has to continue to struggle to create the fundamental change that’s needed. Most Americans just cast their ballot and then forget about it.”

* * *

Although Omar always knew he wanted to vote, he didn’t get around to doing anything about it until a paid signature-gatherer for a ballot initiative approached him at a supermarket in May 2007. He was supposed to get confirmation by mail that he’d been registered, but it never came. So one day Omar stopped into the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, where voter-motor needs are met, and filled out the necessary forms.

Like most students his age, Omar is following the presidential election in part through Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report.” “These guys are comedians but you still get a lot of legitimate news,” says Omar. “I don’t know what they’re going to do without [George W.] Bush for laughs.”

But he’s also a self-described news junkie, getting his daily news from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Al Jazeera, and the Internet. He blames the media in large part for what he sees as Americans’ “ignorance” and lack of sophistication about world issues.

“American politics seems obsessed by minor details that don’t have anything to do with anything but dominate the discussion,” he says. “Like whether or not [Barack] Obama wears a [flag] lapel pin.”

Omar doesn’t see a meaningful difference between Senator Obama and Sen. John McCain, especially on foreign policy. “There’s certainly not substantial disagreement over foreign policy or the war in Iraq. The differences between McCain and Obama seem more tactical,” he says. “The fact that it was an illegal war leading to a bloody occupation seems to get swept under the carpet.”

On Election Day, he is going with a third-party candidate ­– either Ralph Nader or Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney.

The historic 2008 political season has seen a surge of new voters. This occasional series profiles Americans who registered or cast a ballot for the first time this year.

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