Voting not an option for Iraqi refugee living in Oklahoma

Sunday, January 23rd 2005, 1:53 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Ban Adil Sarhan fled her country just days after her 4-year-old daughter and husband were gunned down on a Baghdad street as they were driving home from a family dinner.

Sarhan, 29, abruptly returned from a vacation in Jordan, looked at her husband's blood-splattered watch and her daughter's shoes filled with blood and fled Iraq with one suitcase and her infant son.

Under the protection of armed guards she was whisked to the Baghdad airport, shuffled through immigration centers and deposited in Oklahoma City with the family of a former employer in April.

Sarhan is one of the many Iraqis living in Oklahoma who won't vote in the upcoming Iraqi election. The distance and inconvenience to travel to one of five voting sites in the United States is too much, she said.

Sarhan lives off a small monthly stipend from a refugee organization and the kindness of the few friends she's made in Oklahoma City. She's attending computer-training classes while she awaits immigration papers that would allow her to work legally in the United States.

Sarhan sought political asylum in the United States after her family was killed and she received death threats. Officials believe Sarhan and her husband were targeted by insurgent groups because they worked with American media organizations.

Sarhan, who has a masters degree in English, worked as a translator for a Knight Ridder reporter working in Iraq. Her husband, Selwan, was a translator for Voice of America radio. The jobs were risky, but lucrative and the couple was planning to buy a house.

Now that she is in the United States, Sarhan can't afford a house or the cost to make a 10-hour trek to Nashville, the nearest voting center to Oklahoma City. International voting rules require Iraqis to register in person and be there to vote a few days later.

Since the Iraqi government has no official list of voters there will be no mail-in vote, said June Chau, a spokeswoman for the Iraq-Out-of-Country Voting Program.

Iraqis living in the United States had to register to vote by Sunday. The voter rolls will be displayed for two days and then voting will begin Friday in Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. The Iraqi election is Jan. 30.

``It's frustrating that there's no voting near here,'' she said. ``I'm far from (my) country and this is something I could do to support the rebuilding of Iraq. We didn't vote for 35 years, it's our dream to vote now.''

Some had hoped for a voting center in Dallas, where about 5,000 members of the Kurdish ethnic minority live. Only about 121 Iraqis live in Oklahoma, according to the 2000 Census.

Chau said when the process of deciding voting sites began, Washington, D.C. was the only U.S. site. After looking at Census data, the group, an arm of the International Office of Migration, picked four more sites in areas where there was a large concentration of Iraqis.

Much of the vote to elect the 275-member interim National Assembly could come from some 240,000 Iraqis living in the United States. The assembly will draft a new constitution and pick officials for a new Iraqi government.

If Sarhan had been able to vote she probably would have been the only person in her family doing so. Relatives living in Iraq fear they will be targets for insurgents if they go to the polls.

``I asked my mother if she was going to vote and she said 'Do you want me to be killed?''' Sarhan said.

The fear of insurgent violence is real. Officials have told Sarhan that her husband Selwan was killed by an insurgent group and that some of his cousins may have been part of it. Her mother-in-law was also killed in the shooting.

Sarhan's son Fadi, who was 4-months-old at the time of the shootings, was spared because he was home with a baby sitter.

In a cramped apartment in central Oklahoma City, Sarhan is trying to rebuild her life with Fadi, who is now 15-months-old and tottering around speaking bits of English.

As she talks to her family on a cell phone, their reports solidify her fears that things are getting worse for them.

``Under Saddam Hussein we had everything, but we didn't have democracy,'' Sarhan said. ``Now we have political freedom, but nothing else.''

The hope of democracy for Iraq seems far from a reality.

``We have no electricity, no jobs,'' she said. ``Democracy, this maybe will happen in 5 or 10 years, but not yet. First we need security.''