International students experience Missouri, learn about elections

Sunday, November 5, 2006

The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With all eyes on Missourians to see how they'll vote on everything from a U.S. senator to stem cell research, one set of inquisitive onlookers has traveled far to watch from the sidelines in the Kansas City area.

But these election observers won't be looking for violations. They will study Missouri's election process.

The six students from the Middle East have been paired with about a dozen Midwest scholars. They will live for a week in a former fraternity mansion at William Jewell College in Liberty.

Oxford International Review, a global affairs journal launched by students at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, assembled the students and brought them to the bellwether state. OIR executive editor and chief operating officer Anthony Shop said Missouri is the proper setting for the exercise in politics and culture.

A political bellwether for most of the 20th century, Missouri has voted for every presidential winner but one since 1900.

The scholars will be in Missouri through Election Day, visiting polls, taking part in voter-recruitment events and working with both Republican and Democratic campaign volunteers.

"They tell me the results of Missouri elections, since old times, decide who wins the presidential elections," said an enthusiastic Roy Abdo, who will remain in the state after the election to attend William Jewell.

The 22-year-old from Lebanon has been in the U.S. since July after violence erupted in Beirut and kept him from returning home. William Jewell and OIR, which are educational partners, teamed up to help Abdo obtain a scholarship. He will study business administration.

"Everyone says that in Missouri everyone is nice -- they welcome people from abroad," Abdo said, adding that so far he's found this to be true.

Missouri has several hot election races and issues, most notably the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill.

"I think right now the Senate election in Missouri is about as close a race as you can get," Shop said. "It's a very competitive race. I think it's indicative of our country. Right now, Americans are asking themselves what America's role is in the world and how that might change based upon which party controls Congress."

Iraqi student Bilal Wahab said he isn't concerned about who wins -- the Democrats or Republicans.

"What matters for me is there's a positive, forward-looking policy toward Iraq," said Wahab, 27, a Fulbright Scholar studying national politics at American University in Washington, D.C.

He said he wants to see how Missouri elections work, but is more interested in interacting with the other students and learning where they stand on issues.

"It's a good idea to bring in a small group so we can connect on a more personal level," he said.

The students have spent their first days getting acquainted. They ate a Mexican lunch together on Kansas City's upscale Country Club Plaza and did a group tour at the Liberty Memorial Museum.

Between bites of quesadillas and salads, they joked and snapped photos of each other with camera phones.

This weekend, the scholars will experience each other's religions at Muslim and Christian events.

"Prior to 9/11, many people in the United States never thought about Islam," OIR editor-in-chief Rachel Yould said. "And I think there are many in the Muslim world who don't understand how important Christian faith and Christian values really are in people making election decisions."

Student Rima Abou-Mrad said religion heavily influences politics in her country, Lebanon. She said political parties back home are divided according to their members' faith.

"I would like to have secular parties in Lebanon," said Abou-Mrad, 24, who is pursuing a master's degree in corporate and finance law at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The whole culture of U.S. elections -- the Republican-Democrat party system, electronic vote tallying and election observers -- fascinates her.

She doesn't think Americans know enough about politics outside of their own. She said Lebanese citizens make a point to follow U.S. politics because "if something happens here in the U.S., we will have consequences in Lebanon."

William Jewell senior Kelsey O'Donnell said she longs to learn more about other countries and what their citizens think about the War in Iraq and other current events.

"I'm hoping to teach them that Americans do care about other countries," said O'Donnell, 22, who is studying institutions and policies.

O'Donnell, who is from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, feels Missouri's grassroots movements and competitive political climate makes it the ideal place for an election study.

In addition to the two students from Lebanon and one from Iraq, three of the scholars hail from United Arab Emirates. The country will have its first local elections next month.

Shop, the OIR executive editor, said most international students haven't experienced anything like a U.S. election.

"We have folks out with signs campaigning for who they think should be in control," Shop said of Americans. "We have debates. But typically, our political process is peaceful compared to that in other parts of the world. We can be passionate, we can disagree, but we don't have to do it in a way that's violent or harmful."

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