Posted by on July 13, 2012 in Blog
By Sara Jawhari
2012 Summer Intern
22 year-old Sarah Burshan stands in the doorway of a conference room-turned polling station in a Holiday Inn in the suburbs of Washington DC. The astonishment in her eyes is visible as she is witnessing something she never in her wildest dreams expected to be alive for. Her mother and aunt are ahead of her, finishing paperwork that will grant them a small orange card, allowing them to proceed to the polling stands. They will be voting in an unprecedented democratic election that will appoint 200 people into Libya’s first General National Congress.
A concept that would’ve seemed crazy a little over a year ago, the elections are a bittersweet moment for Libyans as they reflect on the more than four decades of suffering it took to get to this monumental moment in history.
“Voting for the first time in a Libyan election is an amazing feeling. This time last year nobody would’ve expected we’d be at the polling stations right now voting for our first national congress,” said Adam Sbita, a Libyan American from Virginia. “You have to think back to everyone who has passed away fighting, trying to get to this point and honestly nobody ever dreamed of getting this far this quickly.”
The out-of-country elections in the US began July 3 and ended the evening of July 7, coinciding with the actual election day in Libya. I was granted a media pass by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hired to conduct the elections abroad, giving me access to cover the event throughout the week. What originally stemmed as a task for a work-related blog quickly turned into a very personal project upon snapping one photo of a man’s elated face after slipping his ballots into the box. The man turned to me, begging me to jot down his email so he could send his family back in Libya the photo of his special moment. His sincere and humble request could not be turned down and thus, it turned into a photo project for the Libyan community; an opportunity at a behind-the-scenes walkthrough of the elections for those living in diaspora who could not participate.
Throughout the week, I witnessed Libyan youth participate in their first elections, voting for their native Libya prior to even partaking in electing America's next president. I was able to speak to many of the elder voters, whose stories are as heart-wrenching as they are inspiring. I was even able to photograph a beautiful pregnant woman laying her inked finger over her protruding belly, a moment she will always cherish with her first-born.
But the highlight of the week was being able to physically witness my friend Sarah Burshan registering, receiving her voter card, and voting for none other than her own father to rewrite Libya’s new constitution as a member of the new Congress. Upon receiving her ballot Sarah grew emotional: “We never thought we’d see this day, let alone to vote, and to vote for my dad, do you guys forget how many people died for this?” she said from beyond the polling box.
My earliest exposure to the brutal realities in Libya as a child was through my older brother’s friend, whose father was imprisoned in Libya for the majority of his life. I didn’t understand why, nor was it explained to me further. Meeting Sarah and her family granted me personal, unfiltered knowledge of the conflict that I otherwise would’ve been blind to. While the majority of my fellow middle school friends were learning about US history, I was also getting schooled about Gaddafi’s atrocities, including the Abu Salim Prison massacre in which more than 1200 prisoners, mostly political detainees, were murdered in a two-day span. Families of the detained would frequently drive out to the prison to provide food and clothing, not knowing their loved ones had been murdered years prior. The sheer cruelty of this visual frequently haunted my thoughts, and in the moment during the 2011 revolution where hundreds of innocent detainees were being released from the prison, I buckled in front of my television and cried in complete awe. This moment of euphoria was surpassed when I was able to meet a former Abu Salim detainee at the elections. His jubilant smile throughout and after the voting process said it all; a physical display of victory.
“It’s an out-of-body experience. It still hasn’t sunk in. It hasn’t even been 12 months since [the revolution] and we are already having elections?” said Abdulrahman Aduib, a Libyan American from Chicago. “Getting on the airplane with my parents this morning, we were discussing who we were going to vote for and we were talking about people who we actually know. These are people I’ve broken bread with, have had conversations with and in some cases I'm related to, people [on the ballot]. To think I could vote for someone I actually know, that in and of itself, is tremendous. I cannot explain how proud I am of my people, my generation, my cousins and the people that made the ultimate sacrifice throughout it all.”
“I cannot even explain it. Two years ago this was something nobody from Libya would’ve ever thought would happen. And to be able to come and to be able to vote for whom we want to write the constitution of Libya. Libya’s going to have a constitution!” Sarah said ecstatically.
“I feel like this is the biggest example for the Libyan community that ‘Inna Allah ma’ elsaabireen’ (Allah is with those whom are patient), and that for anyone out there that has ever felt hardships, anything is possible.” Sarah shared as we debriefed after casting her vote. “A day that nobody every thought would happen, nobody dreamt would happen, is all unfolding right before our eyes. And we hope and pray for every country in the world to feel democracy, to feel the freedom that the people of Libya now feel. And I think that is possible for everyone. For Palestine, Syria, Yemen, all of the countries that can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s coming Insha’Allah (God willing).”
After packing up the last of the posters and remnants of the makeshift polling station that once occupied the room, some polling staffers and friends approached me, one carrying a small white bottle covered in blue splotches. “Dip your finger,” he said. After clarifying once again that I was Palestinian and did not partake in the elections, a staff member responded, “You are an honorary Libyan. Do it in solidarity. We are all one.”
Trying to hold back the obvious emotions this stirred in my gut, I politely responded, “My day will come.”
This moment summed up what the week had represented: hope. Hope that one day, all victims of oppression will overcome decades of adversity and proudly hold up their own inked fingers, symbolizing that their patience and resilience has paid off, just as it has for the Libyan community.
To witness the hundreds of Libyan Americans filtering in and out of the polling stations, to hear their stories of persistence, to photograph their elated faces throughout their elections journey, I have no doubts that one day, for all of us, our day will come.
The photos of the U.S. out-of-country Libyan elections can be viewed here. The goal of these photos is to give the many Libyans living in diaspora across the states who couldn't make it out to the elections a glimpse into this monumental moment in their country's history.
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