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.
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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.
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“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.”