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I treasure my vote; please treasure yours, too

Tewolde Habtemicael

One of the marvels of the U.S in attracting immigrants has been the nation’s participatory democracy.

Twenty-four years ago, I was a newly arrived immigrant and a graduate student at the University of Montana, Missoula. I had difficulty understanding American political apathy.

I had only been in the U.S.A. for a little over a year. The university newspaper’s reporter asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed. I agreed. We met at the cafeteria late on a Sunday afternoon and the reporter asked me about my life history and my impressions about the U.S.A.

While he was busy with the interview, many students were watching a football game; I had no idea about American football. I had also no idea I would be amazed after reading the published interview.

The interview had a title: “Ethiopian doesn’t understand American Political Apathy.” It read as follows:

The Raiders intercept a final pass in the end zone. A roar goes up from the crowd in front of the big screen TV in the Cooper Commons. Members of the crowd gather their books and hurry on their way. A janitor comes and wheels off the big screen, 20 minutes before The Great Debate II begins.

All this is a little odd to Tewolde. “Football is on for the whole day.” he said. “Just to watch a game. When it is time for the debate, the people leave and the management collects its TV.” He stops for a second. “This debate has implications not only for the U.S. but for the whole world.” He has some difficulty understanding how the NFL could possibly be more important to Americans than the two presidential candidates discussing the issues.

In 1984, I was not a U.S. citizen and could not vote, yet I was so happy to have immigrated to America. I was excited watching a presidential debate between President Reagan and Walter Mondale; but many of my American friends who could vote were not even interested in it.

Since I became a citizen, I have never wasted my voting rights. I have cast my precious vote on every voting occasion. Twenty-four years later, I am still amazed by how many Americans take this privilege for granted and fail to appreciate their rights. Their level of indifference is puzzling and scary.

A saying in my language fits this situation: Some complain because of excessive rain; others because of lack of it. Having the voting right and not using it is akin to being ungrateful to what this great nation offers. The net effect of such indifference is that one ends up being an impaired citizen without any voice or say in the overall direction of the nation.

Half of the people in the world do not have this privilege and they are marching and getting clubbed and gassed for demanding their natural rights. A very specific example is my own experience.

When I was a college student and a student association leader, I led marches and demonstrations demanding the right to vote. I was imprisoned for one year. After the government was overthrown by a military coup d’etat, I again led a petition drive to have the right to vote. I was arrested and was on the verge of being executed by the military junta. However, due to the intervention of Amnesty International on my behalf, after eight months of being tortured in prison I was released and managed to immigrate to the U.S.

During this particular election I have been very actively involved. For the whole of the past 12 months, I have spent many hours registering people ” going to farmers’ markets, libraries, around grocery stores.

I did not care whether a person wanted to be registered as a Republican or a Democrat, I just wanted them registered. In the last three months I have been canvassing door-to-door every weekend to encourage people to vote.

Every voter has reasons to support one candidate over the other. As for myself, I support Senator Barack Obama. My main reason might be different from most others. Throughout the primaries and the general election, he has consistently supported the American Peace Corps program.

I am a product of the Peace Corps program. Thanks to President John F. Kennedy, I had the opportunity to be educated by the American Peace Corps when I was in high school. Most people who are now working at high-level professional positions in Ethiopia are products of the Peace Corp program; the same is true of many other developing countries.

The Peace Corps introduced us to democratic governance and guided us to form a student government. From this educational experience, we learned how to campaign, how to vote, and how to run a student government. Importantly, they introduced us to American values ” freedom of expression, the right to vote, to peacefully protest, respect for human rights, and so forth. Since Ethiopia was ruled by an archaic emperor through an imperial regime, the concept of democracy was new to us.

America’s global image will not be reclaimed by sending tanks and jet fighters. It is through programs like the Peace Corps that are funded at a fraction of the cost of military campaigns, that America can reclaim its rightful place as the leader of the world.

Once again, on Oct. 24, 2008, I exercised my precious rights – I VOTED.

Tewolde Habtemicael has lived in Carson City since 1987, where he works as human resource specialist for the state. He was born in Eritrea which was part of Ethiopia until 1991.