The Assyrian Journal| October 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell
Chicago – Last January, Ashur Shiba joined 61 Assyrian community leaders throughout Chicago to become a certified deputy registrar. The event was part of Vote Assyrian, an initiative started in 2015 by Billy Haido and Ramsin Benjamin that registers Assyrians to vote as well as promotes civic representation.
“That event was huge,” Shiba said. “We’re talking about the most democratic country in the world, and now I have my hand in it. I have my hand in local elections, I have my hand in general elections federally as well as locally, and our community lacks voters.”
After listening to Illinois leaders in government, going through formal training, and taking an official oath, Shiba and his colleagues became able to register American citizens to vote locally.
The event was one of a number that have been hosted by the non-profit voting initiative over the past two years.
“We don’t tell you who to vote for,” Shiba said. “We tell you when early voting is and when you should go out and when you shouldn’t go out and vote. We ask you to vote to voice your opinion.”
According to the 2000 United States Census, nearly 35,000 Assyrians live in Illinois, although Assyrian organizations now estimate that number is closer to 60,000, including 17,000 alone in Skokie.
In 2015, while the chairperson for the economic development committee in Skokie, Billy Haido learned that the Assyrians were the largest population in the Chicago suburb at 25%, including 30% of the school district.
Haido linked up with Ramsin Benjamin, who at the time was the executive director of the Assyrian American Chamber of Commerce, and together they began voter registration drives to mobilize the large Assyrian population.
“We thought it would be a very beneficial thing for our Chamber,” Haido said. “Vote Assyrian’s idea is to educate our community on the importance of voting and understanding that voting is not just about electing the President, it’s about voting for local politicians because those are the ones that really influence our day to day.”
Haido and Benjamin modeled their mobilization efforts after the Assyrian Committee for Civic Responsibility (ACCR), a grassroots committee in Chicago that worked on Assyrian civic engagement in Chicago in the early 2000s.
The Vote Assyrian initiative expanded on the early ACCR model with informational sessions on voting dates and procedures as well as political forums to introduce Assyrians to local candidates.
“At political forums, politicians would see 500 or 600 people and it’s very impressive, but the results are that a majority of the Assyrians that were coming were not registered to vote,” Haido said.
Although there are a few committee members throughout the country, Haido hopes to bring Vote Assyrian under a national umbrella in the near future and gain larger recognition.
“It was always a local initiative,” Haido said. “We partnered with a couple groups in Arizona and Southern California and once we established it [in Chicago], we would give them the model of what we had done and duplicate it, but it has to start locally.”
Shiba was already actively attending local civic forums when he heard about Vote Assyrian and began a deputy registrar in early 2016. After the November Presidential election, Shiba asked Haido and Benjamin to join the board of directors. He wanted to carry the enthusiasm from the Presidential election into local nominations. Encouraging Assyrians to vote, Shiba said, is a long term goal for the community.
“Growing up, it wasn’t something my parents pushed for,” he said. “It wasn’t something they would come out and tell us that voting is important.”
Recently, Vote Assyrian sponsored a breakfast with Congresswoman Jan Schkowsky, where Assyrian women were invited to talk to the Illinois Democratic state representative.
“[Schkowsky] told us that if we’re not on the table, then we’re on the menu,” said Rema Shamon, an active Assyrian leader in Chicago who was invited to attend the event. “The importance of civic engagement [among Assyrians] hasn’t been highlighted. Very non-traditional professions like politics or journalism are overlooked in our community and can make a difference.”
Schkowsky encouraged the women not to be afraid from speaking up, vocalize their accomplishments, and urged women in the room to run for civic leadership roles. Since the event, she has stayed in touch with the women and began mentoring them.
This Sunday, Vote Assyrian set up outside of the Mar Odisho Assyrian Church of the East.
Lt. Colonel Sargis Sangari, an Assyrian running for the 9th Congressional District of Illinois, was available at the church to help register voters. Sangari reached out to Chicagoland Assyrian church leaders to emphasize the importance of a unified push for registration.
“I want to focus Assyrians in a direction that they have a reliable candidate they can support and get individuals registered who can vote,” Sangari said. “Hopefully, this is the first push for the next 100 years. We have to start establishing a small footprint in the United States to effect what major policies are.
“If we can get this large number to turn out, now we’ve been able to at least show our strength to say look what the Assyrians are capable of doing when it comes to either vote to retain you or vote you out.”
Vote Assyrian plans to offer membership opportunities in the future and invite members to annual meetings where they can shape the future of the organization.
“On television, you always hear that a vote doesn’t matter, ” Shiba said. “My vote in the city of Illinois might not dictate who the President of the United States will be, but our votes here locally can dictate who our local officials are and those local elected officials can then communicate to the President of the United States.”
A general election will be held in Illinois on November 6, 2018. All of Illinois’ executive officers as well as the state’s eighteen seats in the house will be up for election.
If you are interested in volunteer or learning more about Vote Assyrian, visit voteassyrian.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.