Delivering Democracy 6,000 Miles Apart, Brothers of Assyrian Descent Played Important Roles in Iraq's Free Election

By St. Clair, Stacy | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Delivering Democracy 6,000 Miles Apart, Brothers of Assyrian Descent Played Important Roles in Iraq's Free Election


St. Clair, Stacy, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Stacy St. Clair Daily Herald Staff Writer

On the day of Iraq's first free election, Hedy Dagher's heart swelled with the pride of a patriot and the fear of a parent.

How many times had the Wheeling woman explained the importance of a free Iraq to her sons when they were young?

How often had she explained what a democracy would mean to their long-suffering people?

She cast her historic ballot knowing her sons had listened. At that very moment, both men were playing roles in the execution of the country's first true election. As she watched their selflessness bear fruit, Hedy Dagher had just one nagging question left: Would her boys be safe in the process?

The eldest, Dan, was in Iraq serving with the U.S. Air Force. The 41-year-old father of two had volunteered to fly security missions that day, transporting military supplies across the war- torn country.

As Lt. Col. Dan Dagher took to the skies, Hedy Dagher's younger son, Pete, helped Iraqis cast absentee ballots in Rosemont.

Separated by 6,000 miles, the brothers were united by a historic, familial and patriotic cause: Bringing democracy to their mother's homeland.

The family united again nearly five months later to reflect upon the event they hope will eventually bring stability to Iraq. Hedy Dagher finally can talk openly about the election - now that Dan's home and both her sons are safe.

"That day," she said, "was like a dream."

An American story

Hedy Dagher, a single mother, raised her sons amid the Chicago area's thriving Assyrian community. Like many first-generation Americans, they grew up with a deep affection for their mother's adopted country and an appreciation for their ancestors' struggles.

Assyrians, as the brothers learned at an early age, have struggled since biblical times.

Their mother had grown up in Baghdad, where Assyrians remain an ethnic minority. She left in 1958, seeking freedom and economic opportunity in the United States.

Saddam Hussein rose to power 10 years later, unleashing nearly four decades of misery on her people. The largely Christian community could not teach in its native language and was never fully recognized by the government.

Christians could convert to Islam, but Muslims were forbidden from becoming Christians. Meanwhile, Saddam forced Assyrians, who do not consider themselves Arabs, to declare themselves such in an act of ethnic cleansing meant to stoke a fervent nationalist ideology.

An estimated 1.5 million Assyrians still live in Iraq, their native and biblical home. Another 4 million live outside the country, having fled after centuries of religious persecution.

About 80,000 live in the Chicago area. Nearly 25 percent were eligible to vote in the Iraq election last January.

Neither Dan nor Pete Dagher, however, could cast a ballot. Despite their mother's nationality, Iraq's laws prevented them from voting because their father was born in Lebanon.

Their ineligibility never bothered them. The brothers' American citizenship fueled their commitment as much as the family's Assyrian heritage.

"I'm doing this for the United States," Pete Dagher said. "If we get this country to be a democracy, we don't ever have to go back and fight a third war there."

They found comfort and inspiration in the family's efforts to ease Iraq's burden. Mother voting, one son protecting, the other poll-watching.

"It made me feel a lot closer to home," Dan Dagher said while recently visiting his mother in Wheeling. "It's like looking at the same moon. You know they're participating in the same thing half a world away."

To help write history

Pete Dagher, 39, a former Congressional candidate who worked for the Clinton administration, volunteered to be an election judge overseeing absentee ballots.

Organizers later tapped him to manage the voting in Rosemont, one of only two polling sites in the upper Midwest. …

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