For Arabs, there’s more to American citizenship than voting

Ragy Halim mentions the word ‘president’ over dinner with his family, and an already wide smile further stretches across the face of his seven-year-old son. Despite his small size, Danial Halim feels big when breaking the news to his father. “You know Dad,” Halim recalls his son saying, “I can be the president of the United States.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/halim-11.mp3] Listen to Halim swell with pride over his son’s realization.

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This story is part of a unique collaboration of twelve Chicago area ethnic news media examining how different immigrant communities in and around Chicago are approaching the 2012 election campaigns. The stories were released in June 2012 by Africa Today, Al Moustaqbal – Future newspaper (Arab), Bulgaria Weekly, Draugas – The Lituanian World-wide Daily, Extra (Hispanic), India Tribune, InformacjeUSA.com (Polish), Korea Daily News, Pinoy Newsmagazine (Filipino), Reflejos (Hispanic),  Reklama (Russian), and  Urdu Times (Pakistani). Click here to access the other stories: Indian Americans shift party allegiance and take their money with them, An election dilemma for Poles: Vote religion or immigration, Russian immigrants trending Republican, Russian Jews moreso, Bulgarian immigrants may abandon Obama, but voting participation unclear, Pakistani Americans mobilize for the elections…back in Pakistan, Memories of corruption and the Machine stunt Latino vote, Dual citizenship for Lithuanians not for everyone, Filipino immigrants stepping onto the political scene, PERC leads Korean immigrant community into the political process, and African activism coming off the sidelines.

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Halim confirms the seven year old’s assertion tinging his son’s pride with humor. Filled with love for his older sister, Sara, Danial Halim asks his father if she too can be president, but is met with a different response. Sara Halim cannot be president because she was born outside of the United States. The Halim family had immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt seven years earlier, in January 2004.

Although a naturalized American citizenship does not afford Sara Halim the right to run for president, citizenship in any form means a lot to Arab immigrants. David Zverow, executive director of the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, explained that the immigrants who come here as either refugees or non-refugees reap many benefits from obtaining American citizenship, some of which include alleviation of deportation fears, the ability to bring relatives into the country and financial aid for schooling. Other Arab immigrants say it means a lot more.

Freedom of movement

It’s six in the morning when 17-year-old Aqeel Attiya awakens in his home in Iraq to violent knocking on the door. He opens it and is violently pushed down to the ground. When he wakes up three hours later, his mother tells him that his father, who had been delivering resources to the U.S. army, has been kidnapped by al-Qaeda.

After his family pays al-Qaeda $50,000 to get his father back, Attiya and his family move to Egypt. Several months after their 2006 uprooting, the family is then forced to move again when his father is not permitted re-entry into Egypt after a business trip home to Iraq.

Attiya’s family moved to Syria, and then to the U.S. with work visas in 2007. Last year, Attiya and his family were granted American citizenship and with it, the opportunity to travel and return home to the United States.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/attiya1.mp3] Listen to what citizenship means to Aqeel Attiya.

A fan of soccer and travel, Attiya hopes that the Iraqi national football team will get to play Brazil’s team in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. If that is the case, he says, he will go to Brazil to watch the event as both an Iraqi and an American.

“They ask me where I’m from,” Attiya says. “I say that I’m originally from Iraq, but I’m American too.”

Palestinian problem

Anis Siad arrives at the United Airlines counter to get a boarding pass and check his luggage. He hands the check-in staff his Palestinian passport/travel document only to be told that Palestine is not in their system and, despite the fact that he had already purchased a ticket, he will not be allowed to check in.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/anis-12.mp3] Listen to Anis Siad describe the frustrations at the airport.

With an American passport, Siad would not face such problems. He’d also have more freedom of movement at home, he says. According to Siad, living as a Christian Palestinian under Israeli occupation in the West Bank made travel between towns at home difficult.

Back home in Palestine, Siad asks a cab to take him to a relative’s wedding in Bethlehem. Fifteen minutes away from his destination, Siad and his cab are stopped by a mobile Israeli checkpoint that asks them for their IDs. After seeing Siad’s Palestinian passport, the Israeli officials tell him he is not allowed to cross the border into Bethlehem. Siad is determined to make the wedding. “You said you’d take me to Bethlehem, right?” he recalls asking his cab driver. “Take me there.” The cab drives Siad two hours around the border only to miss the wedding services.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/anis-21.mp3] Listen to Siad recount his frustrations over missing the wedding.

Siad says that had he had an American citizenship, he would not have run into such problems when trying to reach the wedding. He’d instead have more freedom to move not only outside, but also within, his country.

“Even at home, once I get the U.S. citizenship, I would be able to travel within Israel,” Siad says. “I will be able to travel within Israel more freely.”

Protection of human rights

Living in their twenties in Egypt, Halim and his brother welcome the return of a friend. He has just come back from America and brags to the brothers about his recently acquired American citizenship. When Halim’s brother, Nagy, questions the point in going to America, their friend poses a hypothetical situation. “Ok Nagy, if both of us are having a problem with the police station now, who would be in a stronger position?” Halim recalls their friend responding. “Me who has the American citizenship or you?”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/halim-funny-beating1.mp3] Listen to Halim explain why he’s better off being American even back home in Egypt.

Although the 20 year olds conversed casually, they all realized the meaning behind the question. If an Egyptian-American dual citizen is being persecuted back home and his rights are being violated, he can have the American Embassy question the situation and protect his human rights.

“He said it in a sarcastic way, in a funny way, in purely spoken Egyptian,” Halim says. “But we got the message.”

Nine years ago, Egyptian doctors violated the rights of Halim’s eldest son, he says.

It’s midnight in Ithaca, New York, when Halim arrives at the emergency room with his moaning 1-year-old son. A blind quadriplegic who is mentally handicapped and unable to eat on his own, Youssef is a victim of misdiagnosed klebsiella, which killed his twin when they both were infected in the incubators of an Egyptian hospital. Youssef Halim is moaning the same moan that drove his mother to follow his father, who had left for America on a career exchange program, in 2004; it’s a moan of intolerable pain. The nurse tells Halim that he must take his son to a hospital in Rochester. Halim takes his son on the two-hour ambulance ride to Rochester where surgeons tell him that they must operate. Despite Halim and his wife’s fears of putting their son through a seventh surgery, they recognize that it’s the only chance they have of alleviating their son’s pain.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/halim-21.mp3] Halim recalls how draining his son’s experiences have been.

Although Halim says the surgery did not lift any of his son’s handicaps, it did put an end to his pain. Specialists have since visited Youssef Halim to create a program for his education. If Halim and his family become American citizens, they will be eligible to hire nurses to watch their son 24/7.

“Now there is hope to keep him communicating, and yes he has an honor, he has a right,” Halim says. “For a kid like this to become American one day, that in itself is protection.”

Freedom to influence American politics

Recognizing the need for well-trained doctors back home in Palestine, Siad hopes to acquire an American citizenship so that he can take out student loans, complete his study of medicine and someday work as a cardiologist.

Despite his general disdain for politics, Siad says that he looks forward to the right to vote and may want to take part in efforts to get other Arab immigrants to vote because, in Middle Eastern cultures, doctors have political authority.

“In some ways, in Arabic culture, they look at doctors as saviors of society so they respect doctors more because they believe that doctors have power over life and death,” Siad says. “When they’re sick, they go to the doctor and they make them feel better.”

According to Siad, doctors and engineers are the most typical founders of political groups in the Middle East. Siad is open to exploring the role he could have as a physician in motivating Arab immigrants to vote.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/anis-31.mp3] Siad foresees how he’ll have an influence on other Arabs once he becomes a citizen.

Understanding

Halim tells his youngest son that his sister cannot also become president, and frustration and dismay take hold of the boy. He can’t understand why it matters that she wasn’t born in the United States. Halim explains, emphasizing that his sister will have more rights and opportunities as a female in the United States than she would have had back home in Egypt. He relates such rights, along with the compassion Americans had toward his other son, to American identity and American citizenship.

“I’m talking about the human atmosphere  and how the government addresses it,” Halim says. “You are a citizen and you have rights. You are a human and you have rights.”

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