BY NIRAJ WARIKOO
His index finger stained purple to prove he voted, Sam Yono beamed Friday as he slipped his ballot into a box at a polling site in Warren.
“It’s for a better future,” the Waterford businessman said afterward.
But this wasn’t for any election in Michigan — it was for Iraq’s parliament, and Yono himself is on the ballot. Friday was the start of three days of voting for an estimated 40,000 Iraqi Americans across Michigan, many of them with close ties to a country the U.S. has spent billions on over the last seven years to promote democracy.
Now, as Iraqis go to the polls, they are joined by expatriate populations in cities around the world with sizeable Iraqi populations such as Dearborn and Warren. In the U.S., there also is voting in California, Tennessee, Virginia and Illinois.
Michigan has the highest concentration of Iraqi Americans in the U.S. And many locally have eagerly awaited an election that is to determine Iraq’s leadership after years of military occupation.
The ties are so close that a few metro Detroiters are on the ballot. Others have family members running for office. Over the past month, political campaigning has been intense across metro Detroit as religious and political factions jockey for power. Roughly 6,200 people are running for 325 seats; the winners will negotiate to form a ruling coalition.
Imam Husham Al-Husainy, an Iraqi American who heads the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, said about 20 Michiganders are on the ballot or have close relatives running for office.
Afthal Alshami, 49, an auto engineer from Dearborn, is one of them. He’s running with the Iraqi National Alliance, Slate #316, a popular party in some parts of Dearborn’s Shi’ite Muslim communities.
Warren native Hikmat Hakeem — who previously served in Iraq’s parliament — is running on the Chaldean National Congress slate for one of five seats reserved for Iraqi Christians. And Juman Kubba, whose brother once lived in Dearborn, is a candidate with the Iraqi National Alliance.
A poster of her candidacy appears on the walls of the Karbalaa center, which are filled with campaign fliers that dot the walls and tables inside. Standing in the center’s lobby on a recent night, Mohammed Yasir gazed at an Iraqi election poster that features the photos of 15 men — all reportedly killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. His memory drifted back.
“This guy was my friend,” Yasir, 49, said while pointing at the pictures. “This one, this one. … I can’t forget them.”
The poster was an election message for the Iraqi National Alliance, which was trying to remind voters of the oppression that Shi’ites and others suffered under Hussein.
For Christians, the election comes at an anxious time. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians — known as Chaldeans, Assyrians or Syriacs — have fled their hometowns for other countries. Many have ended up in metro Detroit.
Shamoon Muayyad, an Iraqi Chaldean who lives in Clinton Township, is one of them. He and his family fled their home in Baghdad in 2008 after repeated threats. The breaking point came when someone scrawled on their home a message telling them to leave immediately.
After voting Friday, Muayyad told his story.
“We’re looking for change,” he said after voting at Bella Banquet Hall in Warren. “Our country has been destroyed. We’re hoping this will improve the situation.”
Muayyad said the situation in Iraq is getting worse.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, “we were hoping there will be real democracy, real freedom. But everything was the contrary.”
“This is the last chance for the Chaldean community,” said Martin Manna, head of the Southfield-based Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. “If they don’t get help right now, we won’t have any sort of future in Iraq. … We need representatives in the Parliament to help educate and lobby. … If it’s not done now, it will never be done.”