Meet Mitra, a 31 year old first time voter - I met her last weekend, volunteering at my local Obama campaign office. We've been working together every day since, inputting phone bank data to support the Colorado Obama field offices. Last Sunday, when we first met, Mitra mentioned that this would be her first time being able to vote and I wondered what she meant. Was she a new citizen or just a lazy non-voter?
After nearly a week of working together daily, I can honestly say that Mitra embodies what you hope that all Americans are. There is no apathy in Mitra. No hopelessness, no laziness, no 'I cant be bothered to vote.' In fact, this is a woman who more than makes up for the apathy that I've heard from a few American-born twenty-somethings.
Mitra was born and raised in Belgrade - then Yugoslavia, now Serbia. She lived in Belgrade until she graduated from high school, and then came to the United States. She had no family here, no friends, but she knew she wanted a better life, better opportunities to make something of herself. "I came here for college, my country was crumbling, falling apart, and there were no opportunities for me there. I had to wait for five years here, until I received a work permit, so that I could finally attend college here." Mitra did two years at a local community college, transferring into the University of California system, and recently receiving a degree in Political Science and Middle East Studies. It's been a long road for her, from time she left Belgrade, to now. And while she's not sure what her degrees will bring her in terms of employment, she was willing to put her job search on hold to volunteer for the Obama for Change campaign. I asked her a few questions during a lull in our volunteer work and her answers revealed the sort of person who you hope that this great country is made up of, but lately, you're not sure. Today my hopes are a bit higher having met her, my faith in my country, a bit restored. Here's what she had to say...
What do your family and friends in Serbia think about you becoming an American citizen?
"All my friends and family are back there, I have no friends or family here. But they're very happy about it. I didn't have to give up my Serbian citizenship, so I hold dual citizenship now. As a US citizen, I'm able to have my family visit me more easily. Before it was difficult for them to get visas to come here to see me."
What was the road to citizenship like for you?
"To tell you the truth, if I had to do it all over again, I'm not sure I would. It's a very difficult process, and it took me 11 years to complete that process from start to finish. But you know, I cant imagine living anywhere else now - this is my home now. Even if I live in another country at some point, this will always be my home."
Why are you so fired up about voting here? What drives your passion to participate in this election?
"The last 8 years have caused so much damage to this country...and this is the first time that I see us able to make a difference in changing that damage. Voting makes me feel a part of this country, and it's a great feeling to be able to participate in that!"
"I truly believe that Obama - as a candidate - is a good person, a decent human being, that can do good for people in this country. I've been so disillusioned by the policies of the Bush Administration and the damage they've done over the last 8 years. I mean, overseas, everywhere you go, people talk negatively about the US now - that was never the case before 2000, and the Bush Administration has created that with this drive for imperialism and greed. It just pains me to hear people from other countries speak poorly about the US because I really love this country."
What are your thoughts on US democracy, now that you're living within it?
"Coming from Serbia, we never really had the right to vote. Or when we did, we didn't feel it was worth voting because it's just a chaotic type of government and nothing ever gets done. When I was a kid, growing up in Yugoslavia, then Serbia, the US was like this dream country where anything could become possible. But the Bush Administration changed all that. I still think America has more freedoms and rights than most countries, but it's been diminished over the last 8 years. It seems like we've lost some of our rights, like our right to privacy, for example. And things like this have really ruined America's image overseas as this current Administration appears so greedy. But even so, I think all that can be repaired and I think Obama is the right person to do that! This country definitely needs Obama."
What are you most looking forward to on Voting Day?
"I thought about early voting, but I'm going to wait and vote on Election Day. Since it's my first time voting, I want to feel the excitement of that day to its fullest! I really think I am going to be crying all day that day because it's so exciting! It's the first time that I am part of this process...It's a right that was always so far away from me as a green card holder... It's something I always wanted to participate in so I always got so mad at people who didn't vote. Voting - that's 'patriotism'. Not sticking a flag on your car!"
If you could talk to Obama right now, what would you say to him?
"I'd tell him 'I'm so proud of you for your honesty...and if anything goes wrong [election tampering], please, fight for us because you know we support you...Just fight for us, don't give up!"
Writer's Note: I will be accompanying Mitra to the polls on Election Day, and writing a follow up story about her experiences as a new US citizen, voting for the first time.