DEARBORN, MICHIGAN — Arab-Americans make up roughly 0.5 percent of voters who will cast a ballot in the November general election in the United States. And a new poll shows more than half of them are likely to vote for President Barack Obama, over his rival Mitt Romney. In Dearborn, Michigan - home to the largest Arab-American community in the United States - their influence at the ballot box is growing, and Arab-American community leaders expect record voter turnout in November
Imam Hassan Qazwini had not witnessed a peaceful transition of power of government growing up in Iraq. His first such experience came in the United States. “When I came and saw the peaceful transition of power from one President to another that was very impressive actually, and promising as well,” he said.
That promise has encouraged others to come from war torn and unstable countries to start new lives in the United States.
Imam Qazwini, now the leader of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, says members of the fastest growing religion in the United States - Islam - are also part of a voting bloc whose influence is steadily growing with each election. “I think in this upcoming election, I believe we will witness the highest Arab-American, Muslim-American participation,” he stated.
That expected turnout is, in part, thanks to the efforts of people like Rachid Elabed.
As an Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist with the non-profit Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, also known as ACCESS, part of Elabed’s work is registering new U.S. citizens to vote.
He admits there are challenges in explaining U.S. voting procedures to immigrants.
“They don’t understand they have the freedom of speech, freedom to vote, they are new to the process," Elabed explained. "And get intimidated and very scared because they’re not sure what to do and where to get their information.”
Some of that information comes from publications like the Arab-American News, run by Dearborn publisher Osama Siblani. “We come from countries that are governed by dictators and totalitarian regimes," he said. "So when you come here you have to give people time to start acclimating themselves to the idea of democracy - that you go out to vote and register to vote.”
One of the key concepts Rachid Elabed tries to convey to new voters is the importance of their participation in an election, despite the knowledge that Arab-Americans make up a small percentage of the voting public. “The percentage can make a difference in the election,” Elabed said.
A difference that Imam Qazwini says favors President Obama in this year’s Presidential election. “Most Arab-Americans feel that Obama would be their primary choice," he added. "One - they find in him the most reasonable candidate.”
But he is a candidate who is currently President in a country where unemployment is still very high. Michigan’s unemployment numbers are higher than the national average. Jobs are one of the most important issues to all voters, including Arab-Americans, and it is expected to be the defining issue in this year’s presidential race.