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Yalla, Vote: Registering Muslim and Arab Americans

Ez-Zohra Baidouri, 73, emigrated from Morocco in 1986, settled with her family in Northeast Philadelphia, and embraced U.S. citizenship 15 years ago.

Ez-Zohra Baidouri (left), 73, from Morocco, registers to vote with the help of daughter Amina outside Masjid Al Furqan on Roosevelt Boulevard.
Ez-Zohra Baidouri (left), 73, from Morocco, registers to vote with the help of daughter Amina outside Masjid Al Furqan on Roosevelt Boulevard.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Ez-Zohra Baidouri, 73, emigrated from Morocco in 1986, settled with her family in Northeast Philadelphia, and embraced U.S. citizenship 15 years ago.

On a recent afternoon, following prayers at Masjid Al Furqan mosque on Roosevelt Boulevard near Cottman Avenue, she purposefully signed a voter registration form - a first for her.

"Trump, not," she said, making no secret of her motivation.

Zakir Ullah, 37, born in Pakistan and naturalized in 2007, stopped by the volunteers' table outside the mosque to grab a form for his wife, 30-year-old Husna.

"I'm registered, she is not," said Ullah, a taxi driver. "We have to pick the person who will be better for the country. I prefer Hillary."

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's call to halt Muslim immigration and his swipes at Arab countries as incubators of terrorism have offended some Arab American and Muslim American groups. They are pushing back with new-voter drives ahead of the registration deadlines - Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Oct. 18 in New Jersey - to be eligible to cast a ballot in the Nov. 8 election.

Yalla Vote - roughly translated as "Come on, vote" - is a national initiative of the nonprofit Arab American Institute (AAI), which is targeting the 12 states with the highest concentrations of Arab Americans. They include 10th-ranked Pennsylvania, with an estimated 182,000, and sixth-place New Jersey, with 258,000.

Because voter registration forms do not ask for religious affiliation, no one knows precisely how many Muslim Americans are registered voters. As for numbers of Arab Americans state to state, AAI's estimates are higher than census figures. The institute contends that the government undercounts Arab Americans due to ambiguity in the census question on ancestry, as well as "distrust/misunderstanding of government surveys among recent immigrants."

Yalla's organizers say that they are promoting voting, not individual candidates, and that their mission is to use the power of the ballot box to put Arab Americans at the forefront of national conversations on such topics as surveillance, profiling, immigration, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

"With an estimated population of over 180,000, the Arab American community in Pennsylvania could be a swing constituency" on Election Day, said Yalla's Pennsylvania field coordinator, Summar Elgogari of Reading, a Temple University senior majoring in secondary education and social studies.

In the last three weeks, Elgogari says, she has registered about 55 voters. On Sunday, she plans to bring Yalla's drive to St. George Christian Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, where many worshippers are of Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian descent.

Since late July, a grassroots interfaith group in Philadelphia has heeded the call of some of its Muslim members and has circulated fliers - "As-salamu alaykum! Are you registered to vote?" - aimed at what it estimates are thousands of unregistered Muslims in the city.

One of the group's founders, Tarik Khan, 37, is a nurse-practitioner who was born in Bustleton. The coalition has no official name, though Khan calls it Trump Busters. It includes members of EmergeUSA, a national nonprofit that promotes civic engagement in Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities.

"It just hit me as someone who is Muslim, watching Trump rise because of anti-Muslim bigotry," said Khan. "I wanted to help strengthen the voice of the Muslim community."

Consisting of about 10 volunteers, the group has so far registered about 200 voters, he said.

Arab Americans are present in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, with the largest concentration in Philadelphia, according to Yalla's Pennsylvania Voter's Guide. Using the count of people who claimed "Arab ancestry" in the census and other population surveys, Yalla estimates there are 14,545 in the city; 10,851 in Allegheny County; 5,050 in Lehigh County; 3,984 in Montgomery County; and 2,412 in Bucks County.

The largest number are from Lebanon and Egypt, according to Yalla, but arrivals since 2009 also have included many Iraqis and Moroccans. The Census Bureau first measured ethnic origins in 1980. Yalla's figures include Arabic-speaking Assyrians, Chaldeans, Somalis, and Sudanese, none of whom are counted as Arabic in census reports.

New Jersey's Arab American population is heavily concentrated in the north of the state, including Hudson and Bergen Counties.

At the Muslim American Society of Philadelphia, a mosque, school, and community center on Luzerne Avenue in North Philadelphia, director Naser Khatib has joined a national campaign by the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations to register one million voters. The driving force, the organization says, is a sharp rise in Islamophobia.

The mosque gets about 1,000 worshippers each Friday for jumu'ah, the week's most important prayer, Khatib said.

Using computers to register would-be voters, Muslim American Society volunteers have signed up about 500 since the start of the year, said Khatib, who anticipates an additional 100 come Friday.

"We want to show Trump, and even Hillary, that we are here and we will vote," he said. "Vote is power."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1