Omar Kurdi grew up doing all the typical things of American boyhood: riding bicycles with neighborhood buddies, rollerblading, and getting swept up in game fads like pogs.
His pathway to the ballot box, though, has been more unconventional. The Syrian-born college student had to become a United States citizen first.
He cleared that hurdle early. At age 15, Omar went with his dad to the federal building in Los Angeles to have his picture taken. Because of his age, he didn’t have to be interviewed or be sworn in with his parents.
With citizenship comes the vote, and Omar says that he, being a “post-9/11 Arab-American,” feels an intense obligation to exercise that right. He cites “a pressure on the whole Arab community to be more involved, [which] means carrying on your responsibility through voting or whatever other means.”
Omar, who often visited relatives in Syria during his youth, appreciates firsthand the difference between elections in a democracy and a dictatorship. At 21, he’s already a seasoned activist for worker rights, Palestinian causes, and social justice matters – fully exercising the free-speech rights that he knows would not be tolerated in some countries. . .
Now a history/international relations major in his last quarter, Omar is active in three student organizations at UCI: the Muslim Students’ Association, the Worker-Student Alliance, and Students for Peace and Justice. He also spends 18 hours a week as an unpaid intern for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He sees that work as crucial to countering bias and hate crimes against Arab-Americans, which since 9/11 have “increased dramatically.”
Omar has devoted so much time to the student groups – organizing speaking events and protests – that he’s had little time for intramural football and no time for parties. He took part, for instance, in a campaign for better wages and health benefits for university food, landscaping, and dining workers. He didn’t consider it fair that those workers earned minimum wage while the president of UCI Medical Center was drawing a $600,000 salary. The campaign won wage hikes for the UCI workers, and the same issue is now percolating across other UC campuses. (Full Story)