The Arab-American Vote in the Presidential Election As Seen From 5th Avenue

New Jersey residents Amina Soliman, 22, and Mai Admed, 25 visit Bay Ridge’s 5th Avenue shop. (Photo: Helga Salinas)
New Jersey residents Amina Soliman, 22, and Mai Admed, 25 visit Bay Ridge’s 5th Avenue shops. (Photo: Helga Salinas)

Originally published on BrooklynCampaign.com on October 5, 2012.

BROOKLYN, NY—Halal meat, hijabs, and hair salons bring New Jersey residents Amina Soliman, 22, and Mai Admed, 25, to Bay Ridge, which has “that Arab vibe,” which is “better than taking a trip to the Middle East,” said Admed.

Soliman said that she likes coming here because different communities are close to each other. It is a welcoming atmosphere, especially since 40% of Arab Americans have experienced discrimination and are concerned about it, according to a report released by the Arab American Institute on the Arab American Vote.

In Bay Ridge, by contrast, “everyone has their guard down,” Soliman said.

The Arab community constitutes about 13 percent of Bay Ridge’s population, according to the American Community Survey’s 5-year average of the US Census from 2005 to 2010.

Nationally, the community has grown as well. New York is the third most populous Arab-American state after California and Michigan, with approximately 150,000 residents, most of them in Kings County, according to the Arab American Institute.

Will the Arab-American vote swing to Obama?

The report noted that 46% of Arab Americans identify as Democratic, 24% as Independent, and 22% as Republican.

But identification with either party has decreased since 2008, while identification as independent increased from 17 to 24%.

Soliman, a recent university graduate, intends to vote for Obama because he’s “better than Mitt Romney.”

Admed, an attorney, isn’t sure she’ll vote at all. Her preferred candidate is Republican Rep. Ron Paul.

“I think he is what America used to be…only one to bring us back up,” said Admed. She especially agrees with his stance on foreign policy, which is pulling out and “let every country figure out their ways.”

Nationally, Arab Americans remain divided on President Obama’s performance, with 51% rating him as excellent or good, and 48% responding fair or poor.

If the election were held told today, 52% of Arab-Americans would vote Obama and 28% for Romney, the Arab American Institute reported.

Soliman and Admed believe that Obama has a significant chance to be reelected because he is open to minorities and their concerns, which includes education.

“Minorities are screwed if Mitt Romney wins,” said Soliman.

Is Immigration the most important issue in this immigrant community?

Both Soliman’s and Admed’s parents, who immigrated from Egypt, plan to vote for Obama.

Though they believe the issue of immigration is important for any minority group, the economy is their primary concern in this presidential election. “I still don’t have a job” said Soliman.

Admed, currently working in Brooklyn, said finding work took extraordinary effort, “I would stand outside the courthouse to give my resumes [to attorneys],”  she said.

To the question of which are the top two issues facing the United States, immigration was only cited by 3%. The reported cited jobs and the economy as the top issue facing the United States by 82% of Arab-Americans, with foreign policy following at 27%.

“I don’t think it’s a race because of the economic situation,” said Soliman. When asked which issue is important in their vote for President, 89% responded that it is the economy.

Yet, to the question if the election were held today, 21% responded that they would vote for someone else rather than Obama and Romney, or were unsure.

So what’s the one thing that would shift an Arab-American vote?

An end to racial profiling. That is what “tainted how people feel about our community,” said Admed, especially today where there are “so many more ways to express racial profiling.”

The report cited that 61% of respondents would identify themselves as Arab American. Of that number, 15% would also identify with their country of origin. (The term Arab-American is designated to include people with origins or ancestry from the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.) Also, 82% responded as being proud of their heritage.

Admed says that she understands that different immigrant groups have cycled through different waves of discrimination in the United States.“Every group has its time. Now it’s Arab,” but, “Stop racial profiling. Stop calling us terrorists. This is where we live.”

With Soldiers Abroad, a Poor Economy and Deported Loved Ones, Bay Ridge Voters Plan Not to Vote in the Upcoming Presidential Election

Originally published on BrooklynCampaign.com on October 2, 2012

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BROOKLYN, NY—In 1949, 23-year old Annemarie Larsen moved from Germany to Bay Ridge with her American soldier husband. “Nazi,” remembered Larsen, is what Germans were called in post-WWII Brooklyn.

Truman was the first president Larsen voted after she became a naturalized US citizen in 1953. But, three sons, two of whom fought in Vietnam, and five great-grandkids later, Larsen, now 87, decided that her vote doesn’t matter.

Raised by her Yemeni mother, 19-year old Maram Kaid was born in Bay Ridge and has lived there all of her life.“Terrorist,” is what Kaid and her mother would often hear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

The November 2012 election will be the first time Kaid votes for president. But 11 years after the terrorist attacks, and after the deportation of her father, she remains uncertain of the value of her vote.

Bay Ridge’s 5th Avenue is filled with markets, hair salons, clothing shops, and bakeries have their regulars and signs in their windows of local candidates, including Andrew Gournardes, Marty Golden, Michael Grimm, and Nicole Malliotakis.

In a clothing store that sells colorful hijabs, skirts, and dresses, Kaid sits and listens to music while she awaits for costumers. Two blocks away, Larsen sits on a bench, a local resident for over forty years. Both have decided that they will not vote in any election this year because they don’t see their communities and their concerns addressed.

“I was disappointed so many times.”

“No one cares about senior citizens,” said Larsen. Larsen has been struggling with high rents while living on a fixed income. She lives alone, paying $1200 a month for her apartment.

Despite living here for over 40 years, she continues to subscribe to German magazines, surround herself with artwork from her home country, cook traditional dishes like German Apple Cake, and attend weekly meetings with fellow German emigres for a chance to speak their home country’s language.

Larsen was eight when Hitler came to power.  She remembers going to vote with her mother. At the polling place, were soldiers holding guns. “How would you vote?” said Larsen.

She left Nazi Germany in 1949, following her American soldier husband, Arthur Larsen, to his home in Brooklyn.

Moving to Bay Ridge was an adjustment. At first, she didn’t like the English language, but learned it by listening to music from American Forces Network and writing down the lyrics. In Bay Ridge, it was difficult to showcase German nationality and ancestry, as they would be called ‘jew-haters.’

Her father fought, her husband fought, and her sons fought in wars. Larsen’s two sons fought in Vietnam; one was drafted and another enlisted.

“I know what war was. It was a hard time for me,” said Larsen.

She registered with the Republican party because of her husband, who believed the Democrats were the war party. First voting for Truman, and also voting for Kennedy and Nixon, she stopped voting soon after her husband’s death.

“[I stopped voting] because I’m tired of it,” said Larsen. “I was disappointed so many times.”

“No one deserves to be president;” Two Muslim girls encounter politics.

Kaid’s father was deported to Yemen when she was in 6th grade and she has not seen him since. “I was a little daddy’s girl,” said Kaid.

So her mom become both the mother and father. “On Father’s Day, [we always] get mom a cake,” said Mimi. Her mom, 37, is a seamstress and manages a store 78th street.

Kaid’s mom will be getting a green card. She has lived in the possibility of the deportation of her mother.

After 9/11, she remembers while walking with her mom when a man started following them,  cursing.

“I didn’t understand targeting Muslims but I wasn’t gonna stay quiet,” said Kaid. “Just because you have a headscarf doesn’t make you a terrorist.”

A woman wears a headscarf, called a hijab, after puberty. Kaid explained that a woman wears it when she’s ready, as a choice, which often leads to comments and questions.

“You can tell that I’m Muslim,” said Kaid.

Kaid’s 18-year-old friend, Jenna Hakim, has also lived in Bay Ridge all of her life. Jenna hasn’t seen her mother since she was deported in 2003.

Before her mom was deported, Jenna showed her enthusiasm for Obama with a jacket covered with Obama pins. “No one deserves to be president,” she said.

Two years ago, Jenna woke up at 6:30 on an August morning. Someone answered the door, the suddenly police appeared outside and inside the house.

They said that they simply wanted Jenna’s mother for questioning.

“Don’t worry,” someone told her, because she has four American citizen children. Crying, her mom left. Later in the afternoon, she received a call telling her that mom has been placed in a detention center in Jersey.

Jenna didn’t know her mom was undocumented until she was taken away.When she finally found out that her mom was being deported, it was her friend Kaid who told her.

It turned out that Jenna’s mom had been  arrested in 1991 for involvement in a phone scam that allowed people to call overseas for free. Twenty years later, they found her.

“I don’t know who said what,” said Jenna. She wrote emails and letters every week asking for her mom to be brought home.

She was told that something would be done, but she is still waiting for her mom.

As presidential candidates offer talking points on issues of immigration and the economy, the issues seem remote from the experiences of Jenna, Kaid and Larsen – a disconnect that explains some of what analysts often dismiss as voter apathy.

The unanswered question is whether any presidential candidate can bridge the gulf between national policy and the real world of people like the women in Brooklyn.

“I’m convinced that [President Obama] wants to [change things] but he can’t,” said Larsen. “All of life is repetition.”

Bay Ridge: Auditions for Senior Idol Showcase A Nostalgic Sensibility

Emily Peters, 79, auditions for the 6th Annual Senior Idol at Xaverian High School with a song she wrote called “Ice Cream Parlor.”
Emily Peters, 79, auditions for the 6th Annual Senior Idol at Xaverian High School with a song she wrote called “Ice Cream Parlor.”

Originally published on BrooklynCampaign.com on September 19, 2012.

BROOKLYN, NY—Emily Peters had a bad case of nerves. After spending decades as an amateur songwriter, the 79-year-old was singing one of her tunes in front of friends and neighbors for the first time.

She chose “Ice Cream Parlor Song,” which recounts the Crown Heights neighborhood of her youth.

“A time long ago no more. When there was still an ice cream parlor there,” she sang.

The scene was at Xaverian High School, where auditions for Bay Ridge’s 6th Annual Senior Idol, were held September 8th. The talent contest, modeled on television’s “American Idol,” is hosted by Sen. Martin Golden for participants over age 50.<br>

At the audition, participants had 1 minute to introduce themselves and 2 minutes to sing –even if they were cut off before the grand finale.

Songs ranged from Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I were a Rich Man,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” My Fair Lady’s “I Could’ve Danced All Night,” and even an Italian aria.

Instead of one of these classics, Peters picked a tune from her personal songbook.

“[It was] now or never. After a while, I’ll just do it. See what happens,” she said.

“It is things like this bring that communities close and [help] keep their identity,” said Vinny Iannelli, 27, the music director at Xaverian High School and of Senior Idol.

Iannelli should know: His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all Brooklynites with origins from Italy.

Peters also has European roots. Her father immigrated from Greece to Brooklyn in 1920s, soon after which he began working at the Grand Square Confectionary, located in Crown Heights on Bedford Avenue near Ebbets Field (the former home of the Dodgers, which was demolished in 1960).

As a young girl, Peters spent time at the movie house next to her father’s ice cream parlor, where a janitor would let her go on stage and “sing like a star.” Today, the parlor is boarded up.

“Everyone remembers the same thing: places, ice cream,” she said.

She described playing around with a Yamaha keyboard for her compositions. As for her songs, she said that the words simply come to her. “I wonder how it even happens,” she said.

Peters wrote poetry but never did music professionally. After graduating from Prospect Heights High School, she obtained a scholarship to go to college  but never attended and worked as a medical secretary. Peters’ husband died young, after which she didn’t remarry.

During the audition, there was the occasional snore since two men had fallen asleep in the audience.

“Soon only memories remain. Couldn’t I go home again?” sang Peters as her two-minutes in the spotlight ended.

Brooklyn’s 6th Annual Senior Idol will take place on October 13th at 7pm.