3rdWorldImagineer at the Polls: Jackson Heights Bangs the Vote for Obama

New Immigrant voters come out in force to support Obama

By Sonja Sharp

JACKSON HEIGHTS,QUEENS — Running circles outside his elementary school Tuesday, six-year-old Jayed Islam stopped to flash a huge Obama button, the same shade of navy blue as the passport his mother, Naim, clutched as she waited to vote in her first American election.

Naim was among the thousands of new, mostly Muslim voters who cast ballots in Jackson Heights Tuesday. Some shouted. Others fasted and prayed. But everyone from biochemists to bartenders, taxi drivers and substitute teachers, some in burkas and beards, others in sweaters and jeans came out in force to vote in a moment that demonstrated the great faith new immigrants still have in the power and possibilities of America.

During the 2000 Census, there were 2,890 Bangladeshis living in Jackson Heights. But nearly all of those interviewed at the polls Tuesday said they had arrived after 2000.

Ironically, the greatest excitement all day came from an immigrant group that is considered to be one of Queens’ quietest. On Election Day, the normally introverted and deeply religious Bangladeshi community prickled with anticipation under the school’s blue awnings—new voters who wouldn’t say where they live or what they do shouted out the name on their secret ballots with pride.

Without exception, they shouted Obama.

“My voice is done,” said Sawor Khan, who campaigned on the street about two hours before the polls closed, “I scream a lot.”

Jackson Heights, Queens, is split fairly in half between new immigrants from Latin America and those from South Asia. On 74th Street, just three blocks from the P.S. 69 polling station, a bejeweled enamel statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity and remover of obstacles, faced stalls selling velvet pillows embroidered in gold with verses from the Koran.

Just last week, lines stretched out the door and around the corner at sweet shops like Al-Naimat, a Muslim-owned restaurant to buy gifts for the Hindu festival of Diwali.

“This is a South Asian area,” said Giash Ahmed, a registered Repbulican, ran on his party’s ticket for the New York State Assembly in 2006 but voted for Obama. “They are participating for the first time.”

Young families arrived at the polls Tuesday, many with their older children who would act as interpreters. Some, like restaurant worker Mohammad Rashid, an American citizen for one year, cast their first ballot with the help of a Bengali-speaking poll worker. Others, like Mohammad and Lila Uddin, shared their first vote as a family. They brought their three-year-old son Akif to the polls once the lines died down Tuesday morning, after Mohammad finished his night shift as cab driver in Manhattan.

One man, a Pakistani taxi driver who will take his citizenship test in two weeks, sang Obama’s name in a lullaby to his infant son while his wife cast her ballot inside.

“You’re a good boy, vote for Obama,” he cooed. “You want to grow up big so you vote for Obama.”

Biochemist Mohammed Sarker and his daughter five-year-old daughter Rubina, stopped to absorb some of the energy at P.S. 69 at about the same time Rubina’s kindergarten class normally lets out.

“She was actually directing me here,” he said, his hand resting lightly on the little girl’s purple hood. “This election has been a very changing election. I can’t wait to hear the result.”

Even as they participated in the most secular of American traditions, religion played a role for at least a few of Jackson Heights’ Bangladeshi immigrants.

Manzur Ahmed is in his 40’s, but he dyes his beard to look younger. He waited at the polls with his wife, Masuma Sultan, a petit woman with wire-rimmed glasses who wears a hijab in public, and their three children. Ahmed said the “Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim” controversy had troubled him.

“If he is a Muslim and he denies it for votes, he is a very weak person,” Ahmed said. “Muslims have suffered here for a lot of wrong reasons.”

But he said he would definitely vote for him anyway.

“Obama, for sure,” he said. “He’s the president of all people, all races, all religions.

Ash Tuckher prayed two nafl, or supplements to Islam’s regiment of five daily prayers, for Obama’s success Tuesday. After his landslide victory tonight, he promised to do many more. His friend Sawor Khan, the man who had screamed himself horse, said he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before.

“I never ever campaign in my life, but this is a time for a campaign,” he half-shouted. “I haven’t eaten anything today. I don’t even take water until I see victory. You could say I’m fasting for Obama.”

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Filed under 3rd World Imagineering, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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