Abbas Marwan sat on a folding chair in the Westbrook Community Center and listened intently.

Westbrook City Clerk Angela Holmes asked if anyone in the small audience had questions, and Marwan raised his hand.

Could he help his parents vote, Marwan wanted to know. They do not speak English, he explained, and his stepfather has trouble holding a pen.

“He’s 94,” Marwan said.

On Nov. 8, for the first time in their lives, Marwan and his family will cast ballots in a free presidential election.

The 36-year-old Iraqi native came to the United States in 2009 as a refugee, and most of his family became naturalized citizens last year. To prepare for voting, the family attended a training session near where they live in Westbrook.

“That’s a good question,” Holmes said to Marwan. “You can help him. You can read through and say, ‘Father, how do you want to vote?’ And you can fill that in for him as your father says.”

Zaineb Marwan jokes with her brother Abbas as he registers to vote in Westbrook.

Zaineb Marwan jokes with her brother Abbas as he registers to vote in Westbrook. Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Marwan’s sisters and their children sat around him. His black corduroy jacket rested on the next seat. As Holmes demonstrated how to use a ballot box on Election Day, he couldn’t stop smiling.

“We’ll be counting every single day,” Marwan said.

‘THANK YOU TO THE UNITED STATES’

Marwan was born in Iraq, but he left his home country at age 17. He would have been required to perform mandatory military service if he stayed, and he didn’t believe that was fair.

“I recognized on that day, honestly, in Iraq, there is no real life, there is no future for me,” Marwan said. “And I decided to move.”

Marwan and most of his family members fled to Jordan and sought resettlement in the United States. He lived in the capital city of Amman for 12 years. He could only work “under the table,” he said, constantly worried he would be deported by the Jordanian government.

“I’ve been suffering like a nightmare for 12 years when I was over there,” he said.

His family had lived under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, when they said people voted in fear.

Shereen Marwan, center, registers to vote after a session Oct. 6 at the Westbrook Community Center in which new voters were educated about the process. Ahamed Qasim, 15, and Zaineb Marwan stand by at left.

Shereen Marwan, center, registers to vote after a session Oct. 6 at the Westbrook Community Center in which new voters were educated about the process. Ahamed Qasim, 15, and Zaineb Marwan stand by at left. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

In 1995, Saddam won more than 99 percent of the first referendum of his presidential rule. He ran unopposed for a second seven-year term in 2002, and election officials in Iraq reported he captured 100 percent of the vote.

“It is like a fraud election,” Zaineb Marwan, 49, said in Arabic, her younger brother translating. “We do not have many choices. If you do not say ‘yes,’ we will be in trouble.”

FOREIGN CONCEPT: NO REPRISALS FOR VOTE

At the voter training, Westbrook police Capt. Steve Goldberg spoke to the audience about expectations of privacy in American elections.

“There will be no reprisals or repercussions for how you vote,” Goldberg told the small audience. “The police department doesn’t inspect your ballots.”

When the presentations were done, Marwan and his sisters approached the city clerk’s table to fill out their voter registration cards.

Marwan craned his neck to see past the people in line in front of him. At his turn, he wiped his hands on his pants and took a pen. He began to print his name in small, neat letters. Zaineb teased her younger brother, but he kept his eyes trained on the paper in front of him.

“What county?” he asked Holmes.

“Cumberland,” Holmes instructed him. “And here is where you sign your name.”

As Holmes reviewed his card, Marwan joked with a friend standing nearby. But he didn’t look away from the city clerk and the white paper in her hand.

“You are in Ward 3,” she said, looking up. “You’re registered.”

He beamed.

Abbas Marwan, left, and family members laugh as Marwan asks questions at a recent voter education session in Westbrook.

Abbas Marwan, left, and family members laugh as Marwan asks questions at a recent voter education session in Westbrook. Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Marwan, in fact, already was signed up to vote. Since he became a citizen on May 15, 2015, he had registered and participated in two referendums in Westbrook. He had never decided between candidates for elected office, however, so he filled out another registration card just in case.

“What I want to say in this moment, thank you to the United States for having us,” Marwan said, grinning as his two sisters filled out their own paperwork. “Thank you for the United States, what she did and what she’s doing for us. She gave us freedom. She gave us safety. She gave us life. Everything.”

LONG ROAD TO THE ELECTION BOOTH

On Tuesday morning, a few days after their voter training session, Marwan’s family sipped tea in the living room of his apartment at Westbrook Pointe. The muted TV flashed a CNN broadcast with footage of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Marwan has watched television coverage of the presidential race and tuned in for the debates. He’s heard the talk of a ban against Muslims entering the United States and the concern that immigrants like himself could pose a threat to Americans.

“It makes me sad,” he said. “We’re just peaceful people.”

The whole family plans to vote for Clinton.

“It will be exciting to be the first lady (president) in American history,” Marwan said.

“A lady,” his sister Shereen Marwan, 40, repeated in careful English. “She is strong.”

Several of Abbas Marwan’s siblings still live in the Middle East. He has two sisters in Iraq, two brothers in Jordan and one brother in Egypt.

His 94-year-old stepfather and his 78-year-old mother pray they will be reunited with their children before they die. Marwan has tried to accelerate the resettlement process for his brothers and sisters, reaching out to lawyers and elected officials about their hopes of coming to the United States as well.

Applicants for refugee status must have fled their country for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports there are about 14.4 million refugees worldwide, and fewer than 1 percent are recommended for resettlement. An even smaller fraction of that group ends up in the United States.

Those who are approved must pass an initial vetting by the United Nations and then a screening by the U.S. State Department. The process involves both paperwork and in-person interviews through the U.N. Refugee Agency. Marwan recalled multiple interviews, a medical check and fingerprinting.

For most people, the wait is more than two years. The time between U.N. approval and arrival in the United States is typically 18 to 24 months.

Marwan knows the date of his arrival by heart – Aug. 25, 2009.

New voters are taught about the voting process at the Westbrook Community Center on Oct. 6.

New voters are taught about the voting process at the Westbrook Community Center on Oct. 6.

After five years as a permanent resident of the United States, he was eligible to become a naturalized citizen. At that point, he was required to fill out more paperwork, submit fingerprints to the federal government, and pass English and civics tests during an interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“You can’t imagine that moment when you become a U.S. citizen,” Marwan said. “It was like, eagerly you’ve been waiting, five years.”

He struggled to find the right words to explain.

“It was like an extraordinary atmosphere when I passed the test.”

EAGER FOR SPECIAL DAY TO ARRIVE

Asked about the biggest difference between his life in the Middle East and his life in America, Marwan said, “Everything.”

Marwan and his sister Shereen are now licensed caretakers, and they provide in-home care for their elderly parents. His sisters’ children attend school in Westbrook. Zaineb’s teenage son has scored 10 goals so far this year for his soccer team. They express gratitude for their American friends – Helen and her husband, John, in Portland, and Katy in Saco, who taught them how to drive and brought them on visits to Boston and Peaks Island.

And soon, like other American citizens across the country, they will vote on Election Day.

In their apartment in Westbrook, Shereen turned up the volume on the TV to hear the CNN report about the most recent presidential debate.

Abbas Marwan suddenly sat up straight from his position on the couch, as if remembering something he had forgotten.

“I need new attire,” he said. “I need a new suit for that day.”

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