Iraqi makes trek for freedom

Saturday, January 29th 2005, 3:08 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Sarhang Rafaii has made the trek for freedom before.

As a deserter of Saddam Hussein's army during the Gulf War, Rafaii walked nearly six hours across the arid desert in hopes of reaching Saudi Arabia and freedom.

Now, a 10-hour drive to Nashville, Tenn., to vote in Iraq's first independent election in 50 years seems minor.

Rafaii, a member of the Kurdish minority of northern Iraq, was expected to leave his Tulsa home at dawn Saturday, taking his wife and another Iraqi man with him.

They plan to meet up with two Iraqis living in Joplin, Mo. and then caravan to the voting site in Nashville.

``Democracy, its very exciting right now,'' said Rafaii, now the manager of an auto service department at car dealership in Tulsa. ``It's not like something we've had before. Now you will be able to have freedom. You can go outside and scream and yell, we couldn't do that before. We were scared to go out at night.''

It's hard to gauge how many Iraqis living in Oklahoma will travel to vote. The community is small _ only 150 Iraqis live in Oklahoma, according to the 2000 Census.

Rafaii said he and his friend are one of the few Iraqis that he knows of in Oklahoma who will be traveling to vote this weekend. Hassan Ahmed, another Iraqi living in Tulsa said he plans to vote while in Morocco. Ahmed helped Ban Adil Sarhan, an Iraqi who fled her country after her husband and 4-year-old daughter were killed last year, get a plane ticket from Oklahoma City to Detroit so she could vote.

Voter registration for the Iraqi election ended Tuesday and voting for Sunday's election began Friday. Officials expect about 26,000 Iraqis living in the United States to vote at five locations, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Nashville.

Iraqis who wanted to vote in this weekend's election had to be travel to one of the voting sites to register.

Rafaii and his friends traveled to Nashville last week, leaving Tulsa early and spending the night in Nashville before registering and driving back home.

``It's a long trip, but it was fun,'' Rafaii said. ``It was like a 10-hour drive, but we are people going to vote finally for the first time. We are trying to do something for our country. The government gives us a chance to vote, and they are working hard. We are happy to work for them.''

Rafaii, 37, escaped Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War. He and half a dozen other soldiers walked away from one of Hussein's army camps in the middle of the night. The soldiers walked across the desert for six hours until American troops found them and Rafaii crudely communicated that they were fleeing their dictator's forces.

``We were scared and we didn't speak much English,'' Rafaii said. ``I told them we are friends and we don't fight.''

After being in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia for a year and a half, Rafaii was headed to the United States. He touched down in New York and missed his flight to Oregon, where he was expected to go.

``We were in New York for a few days and all the people and all the traffic,'' Rafaii said. ``All I wanted was someplace quiet. They asked me if I wanted to go to Tulsa. I asked if it was quiet and they said yes. So I said, 'OK.'''