NEW CARROLLTON, Md. – After spending years living in Fairfax, Va., Baghdad native Wade Hamandi returned to the Iraqi capital with a group of American doctors in February. The country he saw was in utter shambles, he said.
“The country was ruined,” Hamandi said. “There was devastation and damage – not from the war, from the last 10 to 15 years.”
But on Saturday afternoon, Hamandi could not stop smiling. After years of rule under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, he finally had the chance to vote.
“I’m 76, and it’s the first time (voting) in my life,” Hamandi said.
Iraqi-Americans had their first rendezvous with democracy this weekend through a program that allowed them to cast their ballots at a variety of locations across the country. Those living in the northeast congregated at an exhibition hall beneath the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Maryland to vote.
“It’s a great feeling, it’s so exciting,” said a smiling Agha Khoshi moments after she cast her vote for the Iraqi National Assembly.
As citizens throughout Iraq cast their votes over the weekend, expatriates living in America exercised their newfound rights in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., and nearby New Carrollton, Md. About 2,000 people registered to vote in the Washington suburb.
The scene was celebratory, as the sounds of clapping and cheering filled the halls throughout the day. Iraqis filmed family members placing their ballots into clear boxes, and dozens draped themselves in the orange, white and green Kurdish flag – a symbol of the oft-oppressed ethnic minority in northern Iraq.
Officials from the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, which ran the election, stained voters’ fingers blue with ink, but no one complained about the mess.
A group of three Americans from Annapolis, Md., greeted Iraqi voters in a nearby strip mall parking lot with balloons corresponding to the colors of the Iraqi flag.
“Congratulations,” Kathy Wagoner shouted as Iraqis walked by. “We’re so happy for you.”
Hemen Rasul, a 21-year-old Kurd who moved from Iraq to America eight years ago, explained the importance of voting.
“When Saddam Hussein was in power, he didn’t give Kurds the opportunity to have a strong voice,” Rasul said.
Rasul said his family was forced to leave the country because the Iraqi government decided anyone who worked for a foreign country would be killed – including his father, who worked for a British firm.
“As we get more (Kurds) in the congress, we’ll get more opportunities and more votes,” Rasul said.
Iraqis voted for the parties who will represent them in the National Assembly, which will then draft a constitution and elect a president and two vice presidents. Voting in Iraq took place Sunday; results are not expected for at least several days.
Waleeta Canon, a first-year GW graduate student, is a Chicago native who has never been to Iraq. But because voting guidelines let anyone whose father was born in Iraq cast a ballot, she said she was happy to vote.
“It’s a little surreal because I’ve never identified myself as anything other than American,” Canon said.
Canon is an Assyrian, or what some people refer to as Arab-Christian, a term she says is not exactly accurate. She said her father ran a pro-democracy radio station in Iraq and was arrested and tortured several times before fleeing to Greece and then making his way to America. She said that because Saddam Hussein’s regime prevented her from being born in Iraq, she felt it was appropriate for her to vote.
“My parents came here not because they wanted to, but because they had to,” Canon said. “If Saddam never existed I would be there now, I wouldn’t be here.”
She said that nearly two years since the Iraqi invasion, she is not exactly sure how she feels about America’s decision to go to war.
“The American side of me was outraged. I thought it was a very illegal war,” Canon said. “But as a person whose family came from there knowing what life was like there, I was happy that Saddam Hussein was finally going to be gone.”
Many Iraqis who voted over the weekend expressed optimism that living conditions in their native country would improve following the election. However, they said the current situation is bleak.
Amer al-Mudallal moved to America 20 years ago and studied chemistry at GW in 1986. He said that in Iraq, it is not uncommon for people to go days without running water and that people wait in lines hundreds of yards long to buy fuel.
“It used to be the most advanced country in the region,” al-Mudallal said. “Now they’re living like it’s the 1930s.”
Al-Mudallal said kidnappings are common and security is often weak. “My nephew was kidnapped for a ransom … my family had to sell their cars and mortgage their home for ransom money.”
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis who voted in New Carrollton said the process went smoothly, though some experienced problems.
“It’s not a fair game,” said New York City resident Amir al-Kaysey.
Al-Kaysey drove from New York to New Carrollton on Saturday with the paperwork he needed to register and vote. But because registration took place a week earlier – and had to be done in person – al-Kaysey was out of luck. To his dismay, al-Kaysey made the five-hour drive back to New York without voting.
Others agreed with al-Kaysey’s sentiments, and some were critical that there was just one voting place to serve the entire East Coast.
“This election isn’t perfect, but at least it’s the start of something,” said Tahsin Saadi, a Kurd from Washington who works for the International Monetary Fund.
Nearly all of the Iraqis at the event said they supported America’s decision to go to war because life under Hussein was miserable for them.
“He didn’t leave a choice for people to live with dignity,” said Akram al-Attar, an architect originally from Baghdad. “He humiliated every single human being.”