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She Watched Democracy Rise And Fall In Iraq – Now She's Voting In Washington State

Will James
Avan Shwany with her husband, Aso, and daughter Kobani

This story is part of KNKX's series "Five Voters, Fresh Perspectives." We're looking at the 2018 election through the eyes of five people who are at a turning point in their lives.

Like a lot of kids growing up in Iraq in the 1980s, Avan Shwany was ready for an attack from Iran at any time.

But when the bombs finally came, it was her own government launching them. 

Saddam Hussein's military was attacking her city, Kirkuk, because military leaders believed Kurdish rebels were hiding there.

Avan, around 5 years old at the time, took shelter in a bunker under one of her neighbor's homes.

"I remember women crying, but at the same time I remember brave women trying to bring water and food for the children because it was almost 10 hours there," she said.

Avan, now 39, lives in a suburban house in Maple Valley, about 30 miles from downtown Seattle, with her husband, Aso, and two daughters. Her youngest daughter is named Kobani after the Syrian city where Kurdish fighters, many of them women, famously took on the Islamic State. 

"Instead of being slaves, they become heroines," Avan said during an interview at her home this month, as Kobani played nearby in a Pikachu T-shirt. Kobani is close to the age Avan was the day she hid in the bunker.

Avan's journey from that bunker to this house is so intertwined with the idea of democracy, it's almost like a gradual build-up to this moment, when she finally gets to vote as a U.S. citizen.

Hope And Disillusionment

When Avan was growing up, elections in Iraq were performative. They were about reinforcing power. Everyone would get together and cast votes, but there was only one name on the ballot: Saddam Hussein.

Avan is a Kurd, which means she's part of a minority group that faced brutal oppression from Hussein's government.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it was a relief for Avan and other Kurds. Finally, Saddam was gone. Kurds had a chance to participate in the governing of their country and assert their rights in a new constitution.

Avan remembers preparing to vote in the first elections after Saddam's fall. "We couldn’t really sleep, from happiness," she said.

As Iraq's democracy developed, Avan worked for the United Nations and then the U.S., helping teach governing skills to members of provincial governments. She said it was an idealistic time.

"People were hoping for a good, free Iraq [where] everyone will be enjoying a simple life," she said.

But that hope didn't last. Iraq's elected leaders couldn't stop sectarian violence from wreaking havoc across the country. They couldn't even seem to deliver reliable electricity or clean water.

To once-idealistic Iraqis like Avan, it became clear that members of the country's new class of politicians were more interested in getting rich than coming together to solve problems.

"For years, we really believed in them being the true representatives of the Iraqi people and all the nations living in Iraq," she said. "But, over time, we realized that there’s much more corruption."

Avan held out for as long as she could. She wanted to stay close to friends and family.

But, in 2012, she finally took advantage of a program that allows Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government to move to the United States.

She, her husband, and her firstborn daughter settled in the Seattle area because Avan's former supervisor at the United States Agency for International Development lived in Shoreline.

The Northwest landscape reminded her of northern Iraq the way it looked when she was growing up: mountainous and green.

"Sometimes when we drive to Bellingham, if we want to go to Vancouver just to spend a day or two, we really feel home," she said. "Everything really reminds us." 

"I couldn't believe that is happening"

Avan now works as a clinical program manager for Refugee Northwest, part of the nonprofit Lutheran Community Services.

In August, she and her husband swore oaths of citizenship during a ceremony in Tukwila. 

Credit Courtesy of Avan Shwany
Avan Shwany after she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in August

"The oath itself and then the national anthem, it really made you feel, ‘Oh, this is really big and huge,'" Avan said of the ceremony.

For six years, she had watched American democracy up close without being able to participate. At times, that was hard.

Kobani, her younger daughter, sometimes plays with a magic wand. Avan said there were things she wished she could change with the wave of a wand.

At one point, a former co-worker in Iraq was finally talked into moving to the U.S. But, at the last minute, he was turned away when the Trump administration's first travel ban went into effect.

Later, Avan was shocked by the U.S. government's separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I couldn’t believe that is happening in U.S." she said. "And it reminded me of really bitter experiences that my people experienced back home."

With the right to vote, Avan now has a say in such matters. She lives in Washington's 8th Congressional District, where there's a close contest for an open seat. 

As she considers who to vote for, she said there's one quality that matters to her above all others in a candidate: humanitarian values.

"For me not really Republican or Democratic," she said. "I have to see who’s really standing for that human piece."

Back in Iraq, Avan placed her hopes in democracy, and she was disappointed. 

But she said she still has faith in the U.S., even though many voters see this as an unstable time when democratic institutions are under stress.

Avan said she's seen democracy fail, and this isn't what it looks like. U.S. institutions are being tested, but she sees them holding up.

She sees politicians transferring power peacefully. She sees leaders responding to voters' concerns.

"I think all these things are an indication that still U.S. is the U.S. that people are looking up to," she said.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.