Election season has become pretty distasteful for many Americans as the parties polarize and the big money brings the nasty, but today my 56 year old friend, Faizil, got to vote for the first time—and he was ecstatic. He called me Monday to make sure I would pick him up today. He and his wife Ardo were dressed and ready to go when I arrived 10 minutes early. No bid deal, right, except that Faizil’s English is still developing, so calling me is a bit of a challenge, and Faizil is in a wheel chair, his left side almost immobile due to the 14 bullets he took as a teenager in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. He was not only dressed and ready, but he was wearing shiny new dress shoes, slacks, and a new hoodie covering most of his head and face because he really doesn’t like to go out November through March in Fargo.
I was worried that he might not have the proper ID, North Dakota having added a useless voter ID law two years back. But he did, and the nice people at the polling station didn’t even ask twice when he answered “Yes” to being a citizen. I don’t think he had his citizenship papers with him, so it would have been an interesting moment if they had said “prove it.” I might have been his passport.
We asked if I could help him with the ballot, this being his first time, English still a work-in-progress, the fine motor skills of filling in the bubble a bit of a challenge. Again the volunteers were supportive. He actually put a check mark in the first vote; I showed him how to fill in the bubble, but he just asked me to do it after that. None of the site monitors had a problem with me doing that, either: I guess the volunteers really believe in voter empowerment.
Faizil is an intensely political person, a man of the people, so you might figure out which party he wanted to vote for. Unfortunately the other party didn’t even field candidates in our district, which left me feeling a little cheated, but Faizil didn’t care. On the ride home he declared to world: “Nov. 4, 2014, I voted in America!”
I asked him if he had voted in the not-so-distant Somali election, but of course the answer was no because he is ethnically Somali, but a marginalized and disenfranchised citizen of the often undemocratic Republic of Ethiopia. He left that country at the age of 14 after getting shot up, and has hasn’t been able to return, vote or claim his citizenship. Faizil was really declaring, “I am 56 years old, and I have finally been given the chance to vote. Thank you America! Thank you democracy!”
This field trip in democracy ended on a less happy note, however. Ardo told me that her brother in Kakuma called and told her that he and the family have not been able to leave the house for seven days because of the fighting that has broken out in the refugee camp. They are out of food and water. The children get on the phone and say “auntie, auntie, bring us to America.” But of course she is powerless to do so, and I offered her some typical American false hope: “I’ll see what I can do.”
Faizil’s joy in voting is a reminder that the process counts, that the act of voting is an affirmation of democracy and freedom, even if the former is somewhat broken and the later somewhat limited. Ardo’s deep sadness and concern for her family is a reminder that America still has a lot to offer the world if we would focus more on welcoming refugees rather than contributing to the global refugee crisis.
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