Holly Culloton, left, and John Collins, second from the left, of Biddeford and Saco Area Showing Up for Racial Justice were on hand Friday morning outside Biddeford City Hall to offer support to new voters. Collins chats with Adil Karim, while Sultan Jasim chats with Biddeford Adult Education Engliah Language Learners instructor Sam Smithwick. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — Adil Karim and Sultan Jasim walked to the small table set up in the back parking lot at Biddeford City Hall on Friday, Oct. 23, with a purpose.

They were there to talk about voting. Karim had just cast his ballots moments before; Jasim said he and his wife would do so in a day or two.

Karim and Jasim are among those new Americans casting ballots this year — people originally from other lands who did the work and successfully passed the test to become U.S. citizens.

And to say they’re happy about it would be an understatement.

This year will mark Jasim’s second time voting — he first cast a ballot in the 2018 gubernatorial election, volunteering the information that he had voted for Gov. Janet Mills.

“Here, you fill in your vote … and you feel it inside,” said Jasim, he said, tapping his chest.

Prior to 2018, the last time Jasim cast a ballot was in Iraq in 2012. It wasn’t the same; it felt fake, he said.

Karim, who became a citizen in 2018, cast his first vote as an American citizen on Friday morning. Originally from Baghdad, he made his way first to Syria, and on to Cyprus, New York City, Connecticut and then to Maine.

“My vote is respected (here),” said Karim, who was a barber in Iraq and after 800 hours of study became licensed in Maine earlier this year.

Both men have been students at English Language Learners classes at Biddeford Adult Education. They are among many who now call Biddeford home, and are considered leaders in the local Iraqi community — which is estimated widely to be made up of 100 to perhaps twice that many families or more.

When Jasim took his citizenship test in 2018, he was stopped by the test administrator when he passed after successfully acing the first six questions — but asked the administrator to continue on  — and correctly answered the remaining questions.

The men stopped by the booth set up by the Biddeford and Saco Area chapter of SURJ, which stands for Showing Up for Racial Justice, where Holly Culloton and John Collins had a table with sample ballots and other voting information, ready to answer questions for those who may be voting for the first time.

The two volunteers were joined by ELL teacher Sam Smithwick, who had reached out to Culloton and Collins to see if some support for new voters was available.

Smithwick said Biddeford has the largest immigrant community in York County. The city is home to new Americans and those in various stages of the process of becoming citizens from a number of countries, the majority from Iraq, followed by people from the Congo, Angola and Rwanda, and an array of others, like Mexico, El Salvador, Vietnam, Venezuela, Cambodia and China. He said these days, he’s seen a shift — the majority of newcomers are arriving from urban areas and have solid work experience, while many have degrees.

Biddeford and Saco Area SURJ responded to the call, and in addition to the table near City Hall on Friday, volunteers will be on hand on Election Day as well, said Culloton. That day the group is planning to set up outside, near the polls in Biddeford and Saco, for an event called “Party at the Polls.”

Group members will offer support and encourage people to vote, said Collins.

There is another factor the group has thought about. “People are thinking there may not be an (election) result for a few days,” said Culloton, and so SURG volunteers will encourage calm if there is a wait.

Both Jasim and Karim said they will be passing the message to vote to others in their community, and that doing so matters.

“I took a picture the first time I voted,” said Jasim. “I felt it in my heart that I (was doing) something right.”

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