NEW CARROLLTON – When 41-year-old Namir Abdul-Hamid left Iraq after being jailed in 1981, he never imagined decades later he would be in the Ramada Inn and Conference Center here registering to vote in a democratic Iraqi election.
Abdul-Hamid is one of thousands of ex-patriot Iraqis and their children expected to register to vote in 14 countries for the Jan. 30 Iraq elections — the first democratic elections since well before March 2003 when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The New Carrollton hotel on Annapolis Road is the only polling place on the Eastern seaboard. Other locations are Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn. The Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program USA said as many as 20,000 Iraqis might register and vote at the Ramada.
Program External Relations Officer June Chua said 360,000 Iraqi exiles live in the United States and perhaps 240,000 of them are eligible to vote. While U.S. Census figures put the Iraqi population in the United States at under 30,000, Chua said her group uses Census figures, plus information from the Iraqi consulate in the U.S. as well as information from Iraqi groups to derive its population figures.
Abdul-Hamid came to the Ramada alone, intent on doing his civic duty, but worried he would be denied the right because of a lost birth certificate.
The Arlington, Va., resident, a contractor for the World Bank, hopes to return to Baghdad, where many of his family members still live, and start a business.
When Abdul-Hamid was in his 20s he and his immediate family left Iraq after he and several schoolmates were detained for saying negative things about Hussein.
He said jail was awful, stuffed in a “small cell for seven people. There was a lot of interrogation and a little hitting around.”
Abdul-Hamid was successful in his bid to register — his passport clearly showed he was born in Iraq. Each voter must be over age 21 and of Iraqi nationality or be considered an Iraqi citizen.
Groups of Iraqis arrive at the Ramada, parents with their children. Due to security, participants must park across the street from the inn complex and circle the building on foot in the frigid wind. At the rear of the hotel there is a small tent where participants go through a security check.
They then go into a low-slung underground complex that appears to have once been a garage. Stanchions denote various booths with royal blue piping and huge posters of Iraqis ready to exercise their democratic rights.
Sarra Mumayiz, 21, came to register with her family.
“I’m excited. I get to exercise my right to vote in two different elections.”
The George Mason University student is optimistic about democracy in Iraq for everyone, including women.
“I think with the new interim government, they’ve tried to give everyone equal opportunity.”
This is the reason Max Berre, 23, a recent American University graduate, is helping with the election.
“I chose to work on this election because I wanted to make some sort of difference,” he said.
“I remember when I was a kid,” Berre said. “I’d just go watch them go behind the curtain and pull the lever. It gives kids a feel for what the democratic process is like and should be like.”
“Everybody is eager to participate in the process and do something for their country,” said Mohamad Hanon, the Iraqi adviser for the International Organization for Migration.
The voter education officer, Ahmed Al-Zaidi — who helped organize the event logistics — said Iraqis are expected to come from as far as Boston, many traveling in groups by tour bus. Registration is being held between Jan. 17 and 24. Voting will run from Jan. 28-30.
On Monday, 9-year-old Seever Khan’s parents traveled with him by car from Baltimore.
“I like it,” he announced on being questioned about the elections.
“That is why we brought him today, so he knows we have a homeland and a right to vote,” said his mother Ashti Hawaizi, 35.
Her husband is equally optimistic and excited about the elections. “I think this is a good chance for the Iraqi people, said Khalid Khan, 40. “We’ve wanted this for centuries and decades.”
For Khalid Khan, it is “like a dream to go through this process,” he said. It is a “great opportunity to register.”
While the family intends to visit Iraq in the summer, the unpredictable situation there makes travel uncertain.
“I miss my family,” Seever Khan said of the people he hasn’t seen since 1997.
Hawaizi and Khan said they had few rights in Iraq. “We are Kurdish, especially for Kurds this is very special thing,” Khalid Khan said. “Really big because we never had a right.”
The family was forced to leave after Hussein made it known there would be repercussions for anyone working for the Americans. They had worked for an American humanitarian organization.
“If Martin Luther King hadn’t made his speech, we wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be going to school,” Seever Khan said. “I think it is a big honor to register on the same day” as the King holiday.