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Election 2008

On the Sidelines of the Election

Mhari Saito

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James Kilat and Julius Nganga
(Mhari Saito)
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These days, the television in the Somalian restaurant Juba, on Cleveland's west side, is always tuned to the cable news networks. East African taxi drivers come over from nearby Cleveland Hopkins Airport to this clean but small hole in the wall for their dinner of stew and bread, and to catch up on the news.

Ibrahim Mohammed sits in a folding chair and controls the remote. "I think it's going to get crazy," he says, trolling between CNN, Fox News and MSNBC for news on the presidential primary. "It's going to be very close."

Mohammed is a refugee from Somalia and can't vote. But he's rooting for his candidate, Democratic Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

"It would be nice if I could vote, but I don't know, you guys gotta vote so ... " he says, pointing to some of the other diners in the restaurant.

On March 4, Kenyan Julius Kimeni will vote in the U.S. for the first time. Like the other diners, he supports Obama, but not just because Obama's father was Kenyan. Kimeni says he believes Obama's foreign policy efforts will include more outreach to Africa.

"A person vying for the president of the United States," Kimeni says, "is saying that, 'It is not just enough to hold on to the friends we currently have, we need more friends.' I mean, that excites me a lot."

Opposition comes from the lone woman in the restaurant.

"Hillary Clinton! Hillary Clinton!! She women!" Rukia Abdi shouts from the kitchen.

Dressed in a colorful batik and head scarf, Abdi raises her hands emphatically as she talks. With the help of a translator, I ask if she can vote. She shakes her head no, and repeats her call. "Hillary Clinton! Hillary Clinton!"

She'a Somali refugee and a young man who translates explains that she's is still waiting for her papers to be processed.

Only 3.5 percent of Ohioans are foreign-born. It's a sliver of the population here, but if the Democratic primary is really tight, immigrants could play a role. By far the largest group here is Latinos, and traditionally they've been all over the map politically.

"Immigrants from Latin America are all from different countries," says Pastor Jesus Laboy of Cleveland's Elim Church. "So they're all independent, and we have always had a difficult time uniting these people to do anything. And the immigration issue was the one issue that managed to put them all together."

Hispanic and Latino nonprofits are trying to encourage immigrants to register to vote. Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck says anti-immigrant rhetoric may motivate some.

"It makes them sometimes targets, even if they are here legally and are American citizens," Beck says. "And it really shows kind of an ugly side of intolerance that they very much perceive and are very sensitive to and I think it's been very damaging and will continue to be very damaging largely to Republicans."

Pastor Laboy's Elim Church on Cleveland's west side is packed every Sunday. The 300-strong congregation is made up of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and immigrants from other parts of Latin America. I talk to people as they stream out of the church service. Voters are interested in everyone: Obama, Clinton and Republican John McCain. But I'm surprised at how little some of them know.

One 21-year-old woman says she's not watching the primary or any election news and doesn't know what's going on. Another woman in her late 20s says she's never voted before, but she's hoping to remember to this time around. Another young man says he'd heard of Hillary Clinton, but had no idea who Barack Obama is.

This political naivete doesn't surprise 33-year-old Fabrizio. The engineer is here illegally, so he asks that I not use his real name. Last year, the associate pastor from this church was deported. The pastor's wife and young kids have legal status, so they stayed behind in Ohio. The incident brought the political wrangling in Washington directly into this community, and that's why, Fabrizio says, those who can vote should.

"The Hispanic community isn't that interested in U.S. politicians, and no one seems to pay attention," he says in Spanish. "But this year, Latinos must vote if they want to help the community."

Fabrizio says he finds it frustrating to be unable to vote in what he says is such an important election. So he's watching the news carefully and trying to share what he learns with friends who can vote. If he could cast a ballot, he thinks he'd go for John McCain.

More stories from our Election 2008 series

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