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Arab-Americans Head for the Ballot Box

On a cold morning in early April, six immigrant women in puffer coats, denim jackets, and headscarves gathered for a citizenship class at a center for Arab Americans in Bay Ridge. They grouped around a table, each holding a set of well-thumbed study notes for the naturalization test. Matthew Lonergan, a tutor at the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), directed the first practice question to Sakneh Abdalla, a 56-year-old Iraqi who arrived in the United States in 1994. “Who elects the President?” he quizzed.

Along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
Along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.

“It’s the people who elect,” Abdalla, a resident of downtown Brooklyn, replied with assurance. When Lonergan reminded her that the answer is “the electoral college,” she shook her head in self-reproach. Then, to express her anxiety about her upcoming citizenship test, she stuck her arms out and mock-trembled. “How much I read, I make confuse,” she said. “I’m shivering.” Her fellow students reassured her that she was well prepared. “Inshallah (God willing),” she responded with a smile. “I study hard. I don’t know if I pass or no.”

In the run-up to the November elections, Arab American organizations across the nation have endorsed Yalla Vote ’08, a campaign aiming to mobilize the community’s vote through congressional scorecards and a website (, to register voters at churches and mosques, and to educate immigrants, like Abdalla, in citizenship and ESL classes. The non-partisan coalition seeks to define the community’s agenda and bring issues such as Middle East peace and civil liberties to the forefront of domestic politics.

“These are not Arab issues; these are American issues that touch very deeply on the Arab American community,” said Christine Zola, a spokeswoman for the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., which is spearheading Yalla Vote (Yalla is a colloquial Arabic word meaning “Come on!”). While similar efforts have taken place before, “this is the first time something of this magnitude is being done, over 40 organizations have endorsed it,” she added.

Zeinab Bader, a board member of the AAANY, which has endorsed Yalla Vote ’08, estimated that approximately 25 immigrants have become U.S. citizens after attending citizenship classes at the center. She added that she uses every opportunity—English classes, debka dances, and Arab Mother’s Day events—to remind the community about the importance of applying for U.S. citizenship and the obligation to vote. “It is not [something we do] because of the elections. We do it every single day,” she said. The AAANY, Bader explained, reminds its members how important the vote is for themselves and their children’s future, and “so that the political figures here can understand we are becoming a power.”

According to the 2000 census, the Arab population in the U.S. increased in the 1990s by nearly 40 percent, reaching a total of over one million. Nearly 70,000 people of Arab ancestry live in New York City, with nearly one-third residing in Brooklyn. Bader’s efforts paid off with Abdalla, who earned her citizenship on April 8 and intends to vote in the November presidential elections—the first time in her life that she will have a say in choosing the leader of her country.

An Iraqi who lived in Kuwait from the age of two until 40, Abdalla was never allowed citizenship by the Kuwaiti government, and was denied the right to vote. In 1991, her family, like other Iraqi families, was expelled from Kuwait after the 1990 Gulf War and finally found refuge in Jordan. In 1994, Abdalla and her husband came to America as visitors, leaving behind all but the youngest of their seven children. American officials in Jordan denied visas to her children, she explained, to ensure the parents’ return. Abdalla applied for political asylum five days after her arrival here, but a series of hurdles—lost paperwork, crooked lawyers—stymied her quest for citizenship. During this period, she saw her children in Jordan only three times because of travel restrictions.

“I vote for America. Yes. Why not?” Abdalla said, days after passing the citizenship test. “I’m waiting for this 14 years. I’m every time worried about my kids. I’ll apply for them to come here.”

Despite new citizens’ enthusiasm for the ballot, Bader admits that getting out the vote is more often a challenge. Although the citizenship tutoring service has grown 50 percent in the two years since its launch, and it draws immigrants from across Brooklyn as well as other boroughs, many often do not even know they need to register to vote, or may simply not be hooked into the political system of their new country.

Such would seem to be the case of Nabeela Amirah, a 25-year-old Jordanian from Staten Island, who arrived in the United States four years ago. Her Brooklyn-born, Arab American husband saw her at a wedding in Amman four years ago and within a week Amirah was herself a bride. For Amirah, the reason for becoming a naturalized American is simple. “My husband citizen, my children citizen,” she replied to Lonergan at the citizenship class. “I want to be like them. Allah karim (God grant my wish).” Besides, she regards this country as her own.

Many newer Arab immigrants come from non-democratic countries, either authoritarian or monarchical, and may struggle to understand the workings of the American political system, explained Linda Sarsour, a member of the Network of Arab American Professionals. “This is a whole new concept—the system of voting, an election process,” she said, outlining the challenges of politically engaging her community. “It requires a lot of education on our part: What is the popular vote? Who are delegates?” Aggravating the problem are language barriers and the different educational levels in the community, including “a small portion who are illiterate,” she added.

The difficulty also stems from the differences among the people broadly classified as Arab Americans, according to community leaders. Although Arab Americans tend to be seen as a homogenous group, they represent more than 20 Arabic-speaking countries of southwestern Asia and north Africa. Almost two-thirds are Christian.
“You just can’t identify one lump as the Arab-American community. There are sub-groups within groups,” said Christine Vassallo, a board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee-New York chapter. The community in New York includes the majority Christians, who live in Bay Ridge and were among the first Arab immigrants to arrive in the city from greater Syria about 100 years ago, as well as the newer mainly Muslim immigrants who settled here from countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen within the past 25 years or so.

Along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
Along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.

“That’s why it’s so difficult to focus [our political efforts in New York],” Vassallo said, explaining that while most long-established Arab Americans have historically voted Republican, newcomers may see things differently. According to Vassallo, recent arrivals feel vulnerable because of the post-9/11 backlash, which led to the Special Registration system for foreign Arab and Muslim males. Yet, despite the sense of political alienation among some Arab Americans, “we need to keep working with the system,” Vassallo noted. The ADC’s local efforts in the run-up to the November election will thus include helping distribute the Arab American Institute’s Yalla Vote posters, organizing get-out-the-vote drives in mosques and churches, setting up registration tables in Bay Ridge and on Atlantic Avenue, and planning outreach programs that target newer immigrants who may not have Internet access.

The Yalla Vote campaign is also putting together a National Petition that highlights the qualities that Arab Americans seek in the next president, including leadership that promotes self-determination for Palestinians and respect for all faiths and ethnicities at home. The goal is to gather 100,000 signatures to submit to the presidential candidates during the national conventions in the fall, according to Zola of the AAI. “We want them to know there is a block of voters who will vote on these issues,” she said.

According to many community activists, the presidential candidate finding favor among newer Arab immigrants and young Arab Americans in New York is Barack Obama. Many attribute this to his diverse background and depth of experience, as well as his past sympathy for both sides of the touchstone foreign policy issue for Arab Americans—the question of Palestine and Israel—and his staunch defense of civil liberties.

Vassallo pointed to Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, in which he likened the violation of an Arab American’s civil rights to a threat to his own civil liberties. That helped a community that usually felt excluded to feel they were part of the mainstream, community leaders have said. “In that speech, [Obama] mentioned Arab Americans, which has been a dirty word in U.S. politics,” said Vassallo.

Andrew Muhab El-Kadi, 25, a resident of Bay Ridge, believes that younger Arab Americans tend to be much more politically engaged than when he attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights in the first half of this decade. “The Arab American society at the college I went to, I’d say one of out of every 10 students was involved politically,” he said, attributing this to both the student’s busy, working-class backgrounds, as well as their skepticism that the community could change American policy, especially in the Middle East.

“Many of these kids would clearly be well versed in all the issues that are conflicting Arabs, [but] there wasn’t a politician that represented all these issues,” El-Kadi said. That has changed with the rise of Obama, he explained. A younger generation that had grown up in the digital age took their politics to cyberspace with Facebook sites, such as Arab Americans for Barack Obama, and YouTube videos. But while many community activists rallied behind the Illinois senator, some younger Arab Americans have grown disenchanted with what they view as Obama’s one-sided, pro-Israeli statements in the last year or so. His recent comments “seem like the status quo,” El-Kadi noted, adding that “It’s led to a lot of debate because he’s had a reasonably principled stand on other issues.”

Differences aside, Arab Americans across the board affirm their resolve to ensure their opinions are sought and their voices heard. Some of them say that a community of people that perhaps tended to be one-issue voters—zeroing in on the issue of Middle East peace and justice—has been impelled by recent events to take a longer, harder look at the situation at home. “Now it’s more like a [multiple]-issue thing. It’s about illegal detentions, about the Iraq issue, about intrusions of privacy, about informers embedded in our communities,” said El-Kadi. “We need to be politically active or our issues won’t have a voice.”


Aparna Narayanan

Aparna Narayanan is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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