Hundreds of Iraqi-Americans will board buses from Modesto this weekend to vote in elections half a world away, casting ballots in Iraq's first national races since 2005.
But many will go to a Pleasanton polling station with a skeptical view of what their votes can accomplish after watching Iraqi democracy evolve since the U.S. military toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A lot has changed since Iraqis proudly posed with ink-stained fingers after the election five years ago, showing the world they would vote even as a sectarian civil war took hold.
"As we have heard from many people, it is rigged," said Zeiya Sada, 52, a Modesto resident who plans to vote.
He came to California 10 months ago after living in Jordan for seven years as a refugee from Saddam's government.
Sada was optimistic about his country's future when he voted from Jordan in 2005. But Iraq did not become stable enough for him to return to his home city of Baghdad.
He's among thousands of Iraqi Assyrian and Chaldean Christians living in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. They make up a small minority in the Muslim country, tracing their ancestry to kingdoms that ruled Mespotamia thousands of years ago.
Their ballots likely will go to the different parties competing for five chairs in the 275-seat Iraqi Council of Representatives that are reserved for Assyrians and Chaldeans.
Assyrians and Chaldeans were fleeing persecution in Iraq long before Saddam fell, though their exodus quickened when postwar chaos drove them from their homes in such cities as Baghdad and Mosul.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians are believed to have left the country since the war started, but reliable estimates are hard to find.
Iraqi Christians are spread around the world, with large concentrations in Europe, Australia and the United States.
They're grateful that Iraq continues to give them a say at the ballot box, which they view as an opportunity to help fellow Christians struggling with unemployment and occasional violence.
"It is good to participate in the election to help make change in the government and elect our people," said Andy Younan, 67, of Modesto.
He took his family from the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 1980 when they felt creeping discrimination against them because of their Assyrian ancestry.
"We always felt we were guests in our own house," said his wife, Bata Younan, 62.
She fears that Assyrians and Chaldeans face similar discrimination in the new Iraq. In her time there, her family felt pressured to join Saddam's Baath Party.
Some benefit to be found
Today, Assyrians and Chaldeans might benefit financially from lining up behind dominant Muslim tribes and political parties that control patronage, security and jobs.
In Iraq's Kurdish provinces, for example, two parties -- the Kurdish Workers' Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- that led Kurdish independence movements dominate society.
Assyrians and Chaldeans there are safe, but some still place images of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in their shops and on their cars, just to keep on the good side of the provinces' most powerful men.
"There's nothing worse in this world than taking your identity," Bata Younan said. "We are in between a rock and a hard place in our country."
Some are concerned that there aren't enough polls in U.S. cities with large Iraqi populations. Hundreds of Iraqi refugees have been moving to Modesto, Ceres and Turlock since 2007, swelling the region's significant Iraqi population.
But Modesto was passed over as a polling place in favor of Pleasanton, which is a halfway point between Stanislaus County and another large Iraqi population in Santa Clara County.
"It seems to me that there is an orchestrated effort to silence the vote of our people," said Charles Givargis, who worries that some Iraqis won't be able to get to Pleasanton or provide the right identification to cast a ballot this weekend.
The Iraqi High Electoral Commission is "making the rules very hard, almost impossible" for recent refugees who came to the United States with little more than a suitcase of clothes.
Givargis is the director of the Stanislaus County chapter of the Assyrian Democratic Movement . He immigrated to the United States from Iran, but traces his family to Iraq. He was able to vote under the rules of the last Iraqi election, but not this one.
Like the Younans, Givargis is encouraging Iraqis to vote despite their concerns that the election won't be a fair one.
"We should vote because it is our right and obligation for the people so that some light might come from this," Bata Younan said.
Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.