After she dropped her 7-year-old son off at school Thursday, Dorsaf Naouali drove more than two hours to Los Angeles to vote for the first time in a Tunisian election.
The San Diego mother of two brought her daughter Layla, 4, with her to the voting center at a Hollywood hotel, explaining the day’s significance along the way.
“I told her the one little paper that we drop in the box could change the future of our country,” the mother said, beaming. “She was excited that paper could be that powerful.”
Naouali, 36, seemed equally excited herself. After casting her ballot, she clapped repeatedly as poll volunteers congratulated her. Walking out, she said she felt “goose-bumped.”
Tunisia’s landmark election for a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution comes 10 months after the revolution that ousted longtime President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
The uprising there sparked similar revolutions across the Middle East, including in Egypt, which will hold its own parliamentary election next month.
Expatriate Tunisians, of whom there are about one million, are voting through Saturday at special centers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Elections will be held Sunday in Tunisia.
In the U.S., nearly 10,000 Tunisians are registered to vote for the two seats on the National Constituent Assembly that will represent North America and parts of Europe.
Naouali, who moved to the U.S. in 2000, attempted to vote once in Tunisia, she said. But when a poll worker handed her a ballot already filled out with a vote for Ben Ali, she walked out.
She didn’t mind making the long drive to vote Thursday. Until the Tunisian government agreed last week to add the Los Angeles location, she had planned to fly to San Francisco to cast her ballot.
“It’s that important,” she said. “It’s a historic moment and no one should take it for granted.”
The mood was festive inside the small conference room turned polling place at the Hollywood Heights Hotel, where voters arrived in a steady trickle. After each person voted, volunteers clapped and cheered.
“Bravo, bravo, good job,” said Bechir Blagui, 32, of Hollywood, manager of the L.A. voting center.
There were already five designated U.S. voting locations, including San Francisco, when Blagui applied in July for a center to serve more than 600 Tunisians in Southern California. It wasn’t easy, he said.
“We’re still moving away from a highly bureaucratic system,” said Blagui, a business owner who formed a local “Free Tunisia” group last year. “I had to fight for it.”
At the registration table, one woman appeared reluctant to dip her finger into the blue ink meant to prevent repeat voters.
“Freedom has a price,” volunteer Fakhreddine Essraoulia told the woman with a grin. She finally agreed.
A large red and white Tunisian flag hung on the wall nearby. “Freedom, finally,” another voter, Henda Aloui of Northridge, said as she left the room.
Like others at the polling place, Aloui stuck around after casting her ballot. She chatted with fellow Tunisians about what they had just done, posed for photos in front of the polling station sign and, occasionally, just stood proudly with her ink-stained finger raised.
Aloui, who owns a home care business, hasn’t been back to Tunisia since she left 15 years ago.
“We were afraid … they might ask, ‘Why did you move here to America?’ Some people went back and were taken to prison,” she said. “You were afraid to speak.”
Now, she said, she hopes Tunisia will remain a secular state.
Mahmoud Daoud, 37, of Sherman Oaks walked out of the voting center with the last “I Voted Today” sticker. But his wife, Yosr, quickly claimed it and put it on her shirt.
“This is the first time we’re doing it right,” said Yosr Daoud, 36, who has a booth at the weekly Malibu farmers market, where she sells Tunisian food. “I feel proud to be Tunisian.”
“It feels good to vote for the first time,” added her husband, who owns a downtown L.A. restaurant. “I want to add my voice to the change that is happening in Tunisia.”