How a Dictatorship Taught Me the Value of Voting
I thought I always appreciated our right to vote. However, this year, because of a lifetime of stories and an offhand comment, I have a newfound sense of gratitude.
Life in Syria
Growing up, I remember my father calling his mother and siblings still living in Syria. One day, after he got off the call, I asked him what they thought of Hafez al-Assad (the President/Dictator at the time).
Jontie’s Father: “I don’t know, I didn’t ask.”
Jontie: “Why not?”
Jontie’s Father: “I don’t want to get them into trouble with the government.”
Jontie: “How would they know?”
Jontie’s Father: “The government listens in on all the calls. Sometimes your own family or friends may tell the government things about you in exchange for money or favors.”
Jontie: “If you said something the government didn’t like, what could they do?”
Jontie’s Father: “They can arrest our family, torture them, even kill them.”
Jontie: “Wow! That’s crazy. How do you live in a country like that?”
Jontie’s Father: “You shut your mouth, you keep your head down, and you mind your own business.”
Jontie: “I don’t think I could do that.”
Jontie’s Father: “You learn, or you die.”
Through my American-Tinted Glasses
There wasn’t just a generational gap between me and my father, there was also a cultural gap. Whereas his pragmatist mind accepted and adapted to the reality in which he was raised, my mind immediately went to the words of Shakespeare, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”
I saw an entire population beat down. It was a difficult situation for me to imagine, let alone accept. Even at that age, I knew this couldn’t last forever. I firmly believed that one day a generation would rise up. I knew it would be a bloody struggle, but I also knew there was hope and opportunity waiting for them at the end.
Sure enough, in 2012 the people did rise up. It hasn’t been a pretty picture, but a revolution rarely is. The situation has also been complicated by outside interests. So, today I don’t have the same optimistic outlook I once did. One constant has been the behavior of the Syrian government. When a Syrian-American rapper wrote the song #SYRIA, in support of the people and against the oppression of the government, mutual friends shared with me that his relatives back in Syria were threatened. Around the same time, my own cousin was wrapping up his schooling, after which he would have to begin his military service. He lived in mortal fear of being picked up by the government, and then forced to participate in the government’s war against its own people. Fortunately he was able to escape before that happened, but how many didn’t? How many are fighting, but don’t want to? How many are fighting to replace tyranny with justice, but find themselves fighting not only their government, but even more powerful outside interests?
Ingratitude → Gratitude
Recently, despite all that I just described, I found myself complaining about the state of American politics. It was to another cousin who grew up in that same dictatorship. Sarcastically, he asked me, “so, how’s democracy working out for you?” I laughed it off, but at that moment I realized something profound. The incredible thing about democracy isn’t that we always get the best leader, it’s that we have the freedom of speech to hold our elected officials accountable, and replace them if they don’t serve us well. The founding fathers have arranged for a regular and peaceful revolution. Every couple years we find ourselves deciding whether or not we want to overthrow our government. Unlike in other countries, this is a bloodless process. We don’t need to sacrifice our lives to replace them. In that moment, I realized the incredible blessings that we have … and as an added benefit, I had a witty comeback for my cousin ; )
This election, as I spent hours researching politicians and their voting records, not to mention all those crazy California propositions, I felt a sense of inconvenience and exhaustion, then I remembered that conversation. I remembered all those people from around the world (including my own family) who wished that they had this opportunity, who are literally dying for this opportunity. Not to mention all those who did die to give me these freedoms. A sense of gratitude and a newfound energy came over me as I completed my mail-in ballot.
I hope these experiences help you as well, and please share what gets you through the election season.