10 Arab Americans Urging you to Vote: Hasan AlKurdi
By: Diala Ghneim/Arab America Contributing Writer
I spoke with ten Arab Americans about voting. These individuals come from different age groups, industries, and political orientations. They are teachers, lawyers, students, stay at home mothers, IT professionals, etc…. They are active members of American society and they are all voting on November 3rd. This article is Hasan AlKurdi’s interview, and one of a series of ten articles (one for each interview).
You can find your state and register to vote here.
Hasan AlKurdi, 44, International Humanitarian Aid & Development
Tell me about your background, career and immigration story.
I am the Executive Director of Syrian Forum USA, an organization dedicated to providing development services for displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees in Turkey. Six years ago, I arrived to the US as a refugee and I am proud to say that I have finally become an American citizen last month!
I was born in Kuwait but was raised in the countryside of Damascus where I completed my high school education. I later moved to Cairo, Egypt to pursue my bachelor’s degree in health sciences from October 6 University.
I returned to Syria and found myself becoming a social activist. With a group of friends, we began holding public youth gatherings to discuss intellectual topics related to religion and philosophy. These gatherings were co-ed in nature, which was socially unacceptable in religious communities. We also frequently held silent protests to express our disagreements with external events. I distinctly remember a protest we organized in response to the Jenin Massacre of 2002, and I remember another one in response to the Fall of Baghdad in 2003. Our group was invested in local issues, too; we had cleanup campaigns in different parts of Daarya’s district in Syria.
A lot of readers might view the activities I mentioned as normal. However, what is viewed as ‘normal’ in other countries, is ‘abnormal’ in Syria. The Syrian regime- or precisely, the regime’s intelligence could not handle our activism. They feared we would spiral out of control; they detained 24 of us and began their investigations. While in detention, I was told that our activities were not allowed under Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Another reason why I was detained was because we didn’t hold pictures up of Bashar al-Assad when we were conducting our activism. Even though our movement was social in nature, we were still required to hold his pictures. And since we weren’t doing that, the regime viewed us as dangerous. I was released 11 months later, and I decided to leave to Kuwait out of fear of being detained again.
When I moved to Kuwait, I wasn’t able to work in the health sector because I couldn’t obtain my equivalency approval from Syria. After my detention, the regime denied me all my civil rights as a Syrian. For example, I don’t have a right to own property in Syria. Since my degree was from Egypt but I was Syrian, I was required to go through the equivalency process in Syria in order to apply in Kuwait. I couldn’t do that. I had to change my career choice. Based on my new circumstances, I began working in a brokerage company in Kuwait’s Stock Exchange. I did that for 10 years.
While in Kuwait, I wrote and published an article about my experiences on being a detainee in Syrian prisons. My article further complicated matters. The Syrian government labeled me as an opposition member and began interrogating my extended family members and friends who stayed in Syria. It wasn’t long before I began facing passport problems imposed by the Syrian government targeting me and causing restrictions to my travel.
As a result, I approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and forwarded my case to them in 2005. But my file was not opened until 2010. They advised me to apply to the US as a refugee. Three and a half years later, my US immigration application got approved. My wife, four kids and I arrived to the US in 2014 as refugees sponsored by the International Rescue Committee. We first settled in Phoenix, Arizona where I started working with an organization dedicated to documenting human rights violations in Syria. I then moved to northern Virginia for a job opportunity to work directly with the Syrian American diaspora in the US. While working, I decided to pursue my masters degree in Non Profit Leadership from the Social Policy and Practice School at the University of Pennsylvania; I successfully obtained my degree in the summer of 2019.
I became an American citizen this month. The whole process took about 15 years.
Why are you voting? What are the issues you care most about?
Why wouldn’t I vote? I am an American now, I must vote. I have never had the opportunity to vote before. I want to feel more American and to feel as if I am an essential fabric of this country. I don’t believe not voting is an option. My wife and I are planning to become active voters and to vote in local and state elections too. I have already decided who I’m voting for in this election. I am very distraught by what this current president has done to the country. When I first arrived to the US, Obama was president and he gave America a great reputation after Bush’s presidency. When Trump took office and he began his racist rhetoric, it caused me a lot of emotional pain.
In your opinion, what are the challenges that face the Arab/Muslim community in the US?
I believe Islamophobia is the main challenge faced by Arabs and Muslims in America. The current president’s hate speech contributed for that kind of environment to grow. In my opinion, that challenge should be a main push for our demographic to go vote and attempt to change these issues they are dealing with. While living in Arizona, I faced a very bad incident committed by a white conservative. That incident made me realize there was so much hatred against Muslims in some parts in America.
Thankfully, I haven’t dealt with another case of racism in Virginia, but we do hear about our friend’s incidents. Some of our friends either face comments or disrespectful hand gestures because of their Islamic faith. Personally, for me, these incidents decreased a lot as both my job and social circles are directly related to the Syrian diaspora in America. My interactions with anyone outside of that circle is very limited. However, my other friends who deal more with American society- face many microaggressions, even comments about their heavy accents in English are always made.
When voting for a candidate I will pay attention to a few things. Firstly, there are no perfect candidates, or one who will solve all problems. But there will always be one candidate who is more just than the other. That is enough for me to go vote for them. No matter who is in office I care more about the room of advocacy I will be permitted to take once a candidate is in office. It is very important to continue your advocacy regardless if your choice wins or not. As for domestic issues, I care mostly about social justice. For US foreign policy, I care the most about Syria.
What would you tell people from your community who believe their votes won’t make a difference?
Most of the people I am surrounded with are planning to go vote. It seems that my interactions with people who don’t understand the value of voting is minimal. However, I did notice this mentality of ‘not voting’ relevant in all communities not just the Arab American one. People who are not voting this year keep saying that both candidates for this year’s election are bad and they don’t support either of them. The younger generation believe in my previous statement; unfortunately, many millennials get blamed for election results. There are also others who feel that both parties represent the same system, and some are just indifferent to politics in general. For those who are taking any of these stances, I would tell them ‘There is no good option. We either have a bad option or a slightly better one. If you don’t vote, no one will pay attention to you. If you want to become a powerful voting bloc, you need to go vote. In the future, when campaign managers are looking at election data they will say ‘how many Muslims voted? Oh, that’s such a small number who cares about them?’
Again, there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, but there will always be one candidate who is a bit better than the other. I don’t believe Biden has a magic wand that will solve all of America’s issues, but I do believe he is more presidential than Trump. I know I will have more space to continue my advocacy with a Biden-led administration than with Trump’s administration. Biden will not settle the Syrian crisis, but I know I can advocate with his team on Syria and that makes all the difference.
Parting words for all individuals in your industry/career path on voting.
I would tell all first-time voters and refugee-turned-Americans – the American system was designed for voters to participate in the political process. You need to become part of it. You cannot advocate on behalf of any cause, if you are not an active voter. I would tell those in my industry- it is in our favor that the US continue its humanitarian aid assistance to countries who are need. We should aim for US humanitarian aid to increase not decrease or completely stop altogether. Voting serves the interests of everyone in society, so go vote.
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