Local Iraqis travel to cast their vote

By Ed Brock

For Sardar Sheikha there is no distance too great to travel for the opportunity to cast his vote in Iraq's first free election since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

On Saturday Sheikha, an Iraqi Kurd now living in Morrow, his wife Naema and two of their children joined another Kurdish family from Jonesboro to drive to Nashville, Tenn., to register for the elections scheduled for this weekend. Nashville is the closest of five cities in the United States where the International Organization for Migration is operating polling places for Iraqis living in this country.

"We saw people from Missouri," Naema Sheikha said.

"I saw my cousin (also living in Missouri)," Sardar Sheikha said. "I haven't seen him for eight years."

On this coming Saturday they will return to Nashville for the election in which they will chose from over 100 "political entities" on the ballot for Iraq's Transitional National Assembly. The Assembly will be responsible for drafting Iraq's permanent constitution, electing a president and two deputy presidents and to legislate and exercise oversight over the executive authority.

The "political entities" are groups and individuals.

"We're voting Kurdish," Naema Sheikha said.

Having lived under Hussein's rule, the Sheikha's experienced first hand the tyranny of the old dictatorship. Since coming to America in 1997 they have made a good life with some help from friends like L.C. Thomas of Morrow and the congregation at First Baptist Church of Morrow.

"When they came here they had only the clothes on their backs," Thomas said.

Now Sardar Sheikha works for Clayton County (he prefers not to publicize the specifics of his job) and they recently moved into a larger house. Their youngest son, 4-year-old Shaho, was born here and is therefore an American citizen.

"Our whole church family is proud of them. I'm especially proud of them for going to vote," Thomas said.

Having the opportunity to participate in his homeland's new democracy is cause for celebration, Sheikha said, and well worth the 8-hour round trip to Nashville.

"We need our country to be free. We need to clean our country of bad people and terrorists," Sheikha said. "It doesn't matter how far we go."

Naema Sheikha also said that attitude was shared by all who made the trip last weekend.

Sardar Sheikha estimated that 99 percent of the Iraqi people in the Atlanta area made the trip to register for the election. The Sheikhas and their traveling companions kept in touch with them during the trip via cell phones.

When they arrived they found their wait to get through the process was only about 15 minutes, thanks to the IOM's organization. But they also expect the crowds to be heavier during the actual vote, which will be held in three days starting Friday.

Registration for the election ended Tuesday at the 75 facilities in 14 countries in which IOM is holding elections for expatriate Iraqis. On the eighth and final day of the registration 17,694 expatriate Iraqis registered at the center, bringing the worldwide total to 255,611.

While pre-election violence continued to rage in Iraq itself, the Sheikhas said they weren't worried about anything happening in Nashville.

"They had good security," Sardar Sheikha said. "They checked at two different places."

"If that (metal detector) made a noise they wouldn't let you through," Naema Sheikha said.

More information on the election is available at www.iraqocv.org or by calling the help line, 1-800-916-8292.