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Iraqi community seeks to boost midterm participation through voter registration drive

Ari Snider
Bashar Khalaf, a civic engagement canvasser with the Iraqi Community Center, knocks on a door in Augusta. Khalaf estimated he's knocked on 80 doors over the last few months in Arabic-speaking communities, and helped more than 40 eligible citizens register to vote.

On a recent morning at Al Naeem Market, a small Iraqi food store in downtown Augusta, owner Ismael Al Kattea stood behind the counter, chatting with some customers.

One of the customers was Hameed Al Abbas. Speaking in Arabic, Al Abbas, who is originally from Iraq, said he wants elected leaders to focus on solutions to the region’s housing challenges.

As a registered voter himself, Al Abbas said he’d also like to see more Iraqi residents participate in the election.

It’s a goal shared by the newly-formed Iraqi Community Center. Since August, the group has been canvassing Arabic-speaking households in Biddeford, Westbrook, Portland, and Augusta, helping people register to vote, handing out translated voter guides, and arranging transportation to the polls.

Falah Waheeb, who lives in Waterville, is already sold on the importance of voting.

"What's the meaning of 'We are the people?'" Waheeb said, while stopping by Al Naeem Market. "'We are the people' means we are the decision makers. Not he is the people, or she is the people, no. We," he added, emphatically.

Ari Snider
Falah Waheeb, of Waterville, at Al Naeem Market in Augusta. Waheeb served alongside the US Army during the Iraq War while working for a defense contractor, and said here in the US he trusts that his vote will be counted.

Waheeb said immigration reform is among his top priorities. One of his daughters is still stuck in Iraq — a result, he said, of former President Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries.

But Waheeb said he doesn’t blame the Republican Party. He said he’s a big fan of the Bush family, and likes some local GOP candidates, too, even while supporting Democratic Governor Janet Mills.

"I don't judge people because they are Republicans or Democrats. No, I will judge them for what they do, or what they [have] done," he said.

Iraqi community leaders estimate they’ve helped register more than 300 new voters from Arabic speaking communities in Maine over the past few months. The work is funded by a grant from the Maine Voices Network, one branch of a national, nonpartisan voter empowerment group.

Much of the legwork has been done by a team of canvassers that includes 21-year-old Bashar Khalaf, a biology student at the University of Maine at Augusta.

On a recent afternoon, Khalaf was knocking doors in a housing development in Augusta, carrying a stack of purple voter guidebooks translated into Arabic by the League of Women Voters in one hand.

"The whole goal — I just want everyone to participate," Khalaf said. "I feel it's part of our right."

Ari Snider
Ather Oufi, an electrical engineer from Iraq, outside his home in Augusta. Oufi is not yet a US citizen, and said he looks forward to the day that he'll be eligible to vote.

But not everyone can.

"Because you need to be a citizen to be able to vote. I'm not yet," said Ather Oufi, an electrical engineer from Iraq who's lived in the U.S. for five years.

Oufi said he cares deeply about climate change and immigration, and said it’s tough not to be able to vote on these issues.

"That's really hard and sad for me, because I really want to do it. Unfortunately, not now. But maybe in the future, I will," he said.

For now, Oufi said he’s reading up on the different parties’ platforms. He said he hopes to become a U.S. citizen — and a voter — next year.

One new voter who was able to register this year is Bashar Khalaf's father, Abdullah. Abdullah was raised in Kuwait, but said he couldn't vote in that country because his family was from Iraq.

Ari Snider
Abdullah Khalaf, left, and his son Bashar Khalaf hold up a voter guide translated into Arabic from the League of Women Voters. Abdullah is preparing to vote for the first time in his life this year - he was raised in Kuwait, but because his family was from Iraq, he said he was never eligible to vote there.

Now, at age 57, Abdullah said he’s preparing to vote for the first time in his life. Speaking in Arabic as his son interpreted, Abdullah said it’s an important moment.

"Now I'm a U.S. citizen. Now I have this power, which makes me the happiest man, you know, being able to participate in the voting," Abdullah said.

Abdullah said one of the issues he cares most about is education. He said he plans to cast his ballot in-person on election day.