Categorized | Election2012, Print Stories

Language Barrier Creates Problems for Arab American Voters

Written by Jay Devineni

Reported by MaryAlice Parks, William Denselow, & Jay Devineni 

For many Arab Americans voting on Tuesday in Brooklyn, language barriers made it harder for their voices to be heard.  Despite Brooklyn’s large Arab population, there were no ballots available in Arabic.  However, the New York City Board of Elections does provide translations in Bengali, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

The Arab American Association of New York has been campaigning since the summer to increase voter registration among Arab Americans.  But members of the organization have found that even registered Arab voters run into problems when it comes to reading the ballot.

“We found that we would either have to write it out or interpret it for them,” said Aber Kawas, 20, a voter registration fellow for the association.

In addition, the voting process in many Arab neighborhoods proved to be difficult on Election Day.

“It’s confusing and people are not very nice,” said Kawas, who voted Tuesday for the first time.  “It can be intimidating for immigrants.”

Kawas grew up and works in the area of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge, where an estimated 35,000 Arab people live.  Kawas and other Arab Americans in the area were told to vote at Public School 200 at 1940 Benson Ave.  They arrived there Tuesday afternoon, only to find that the polling site was closed.  The school had a sign that directed them to St. Finbar Roman Catholic Church about two blocks away.  Upon arriving there, they were directed to a third polling site, Regina Pacis Housing Corps, which was over 15 blocks away.  The process was confusing for many Arab voters who didn’t speak English, and some couldn’t even take the extra time to vote.

Before Election Day, the Arab American Association’s staff tried to find out if election materials could be translated into Arabic.  In order to do this, they talked to the Kings County Board of Elections, which serves the borough of Brooklyn.  But when they asked if Arabic ballots were available, the Board of Elections was not very helpful.

“People would give you different information,” Kawas said.   “You never really knew if you could get it.”

Upon further research, the group found that translations were available in several languages, but Arabic was not one of them.

“Hindi was the closest we found,” Kawas said in reference to certain areas of Queens that have high percentages of South Asian people and have been granted Hindi interpreters.

Kawas said that if the South Asian community in Queens can get voting assistance in Hindi, then Arab Americans in Brooklyn should be able to get help in Arabic.

“There might be racial undertones,” she admitted, but she doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

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