Sedder Saba wants to help rebuild a country that she has never been to and that her mother fled in fear 25 years ago.
Her first steps toward that goal began months ago, educating eligible Iraqi American voters around the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, the only polling place west of the Mississippi.
When voting began Friday, the 24-year-old Upland woman started processing hundreds of voters through the polls.
And shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday, Saba and her mother, Selwa Saba, were the last two Iraqi Americans in the United States to cast their ballots in Iraq’s first free election in more than 50 years.
“I feel so privileged and honored to be part of history. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of an era,” said Saba, 24, a recent UCLA graduate with a degree in Middle Eastern studies. In a T-shirt and jeans, she cried as other volunteers danced around her, chanting: “Free Iraq!”
Similar celebrations played out at the five other U.S. cities with election centers. The overall turnout was about 90% of the 26,000 registered voters. At El Toro, turnout was about 95% of the nearly 4,000 registered.
Saba, one of more than 1,000 to vote Sunday at El Toro, slipped her ballot into a plastic box just after her mother, the presiding officer of the polling center.
A carnival atmosphere had dominated the parking lot outside the polling center for three days, but by the time she and her mother voted, much of it was gone. The falafel-and-gyro truck had left, along with the young women who danced on the asphalt in traditional attire and the tailgaters whose Iraqi music filled the air.
In Rosemont and Skokie, Ill., Nashville and the Detroit suburb of Southgate, Mich., Sunday was the heaviest day for voter turnout, according to representatives of the International Organization for Migration, which helped coordinate the vote. Voters were also casting ballots in Maryland.
Group representatives said that as of Saturday night, about 63% of those registered had voted, but the figure surged above 90% by Sunday afternoon.
As closing time approached at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois community center in Skokie, outside Chicago, volunteers watched the clock in the hallway. Just before 5 p.m., crowds of happy voters began cheering and hugging one another.
Suddenly, three women rushed into the building, waving their registration cards.
“Wait! Wait! We still have time, don’t we?” said Khamel Audisho, 24, of Niles, Ill.
The security officers smiled and nodded. After clearing the metal detectors, Audisho ran to the closest polling station. Behind her were her 30-year-old sister, Andera, and her 53-year-old mother, Marlina Yousif.
The women showed their identification, dipped their index fingers in purple ink and snatched up their ballots. They checked off their choices and, as the clock struck 5, folded their ballots and slipped them into the plastic boxes.
They were the last voters in Skokie. As the women stepped out into the center’s crowded hallway, they were cheered and congratulated.
“We didn’t mean to be the last ones, but ... time got away from us this weekend,” Andera Audisho said.
“I didn’t even realize it was so late until my neighbors came over and told me to hurry. I can’t believe we almost missed our chance at democracy.”
Near Washington, the basement of a Ramada Inn in New Carrollton, Md., served as the polling place for voters from across the Northeast who went out in a snowstorm Sunday morning to cast ballots.
With his wife and 3-year-old son still in Iraq, Chaseb Alkarshy drove all night from Boston to reach the polls. Alkarshy left Iraq after the 1991 uprising by Shiite Muslims against Saddam Hussein.
“I talked to my wife and my son over there,” Alkarshy said. “She said it was like a wedding day. I felt it over the phone, the happiness.”
Stella Torres, a native of Colombia, accompanied her husband, Yashar Mahmoud, during his first voting experience. Mahmoud, 35, escaped Iraq after the Persian Gulf War and has been in the United States for 12 years.
“With the threats in Iraq, I was so surprised that so many people came out to vote,” said Mahmoud, who is on a two-week vacation from his job as a linguist with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. “That’s something that encourages everybody. In this country, if they threaten you not to vote, I don’t think they will go and vote. But Iraqis, they did go out and look for freedom.”
Although she was born in the United States, Saba said, she considers herself an Iraqi and hopes to vote in Iraq in the next election.
“It’s just somewhere I can see myself raising a family,” she said. “I think it’s our duty as Iraqis to be involved in the future of our country from the ground up.”
Luna reported from Irvine and Huffstutter from Skokie. Times staff writer Sara K. Clarke in Washington contributed to this report.