The power of the ballot

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Saed Tayyara was 15 when he awoke to the jab of guns into his body and soldiers surrounded him. Unknown to his family, he was hauled to a Syrian jail where he was beaten and tortured with electricity.

Who did he know advocating freedom and democracy? they demanded.

It was only thanks to his father's government connections that Tayyara was released -- many of his friends were not.

Now, with 32 years of U.S. citizenship under his belt, the Craig resident is the always the first person in line in his precinct on Election Day.

In his zeal he arrives at 5:30 a.m. -- an hour and a half before the polls open.

"We have to stay involved to maintain a check and balance," he said. "Your vote counts. If you don't want to do it for yourself, do it for your children."

Tayyara immigrated to the United States from Syria when he was 22 -- seeking freedom to voice his opinion, freedom to criticize his government and freedom to get the best education possible.

"I chose the U.S. because I fell in love with what I read in history books. I fell into the concept of freedom and democracy at early age," he said.

When Tayyara turned 18, he took a very active role in executing his right to vote. What he got in return were threats from an armed soldier who met him on the way to the polls with a ballot and told him which candidates to vote for. When Tayyara said "no," the soldier held the gun to his head and threatened to shoot him.

"I told him, 'this is not freedom," he said.

The only thing that saved Tayyara that day was the crowd's intervention.

Tayyara spent his childhood afraid to talk about the freedoms he dreamed of. Now, he does everything in his power to take advantages of the rights he has -- including educating others about what they take for granted.

When he owned his own business, he'd give employees two hours paid time off to vote or register to vote. He thinks all businesses should offer their employees an incentive to vote -- or at least give workers the time to do so.

"I feel it's one of the fundamental beliefs that every American is obliged to vote and has the duty to exercise it," Tayyara said. "To me, voting is like blood to the heart or water to the body."

It's a freedom Tayyara said he'd die to maintain -- and almost died to achieve.

"It's impossible to express how much voting means to and should mean to everyone else," he said.

Craig resident and owner of the Black Nugget Motel, Maryla Janiga, spent the first 35 years of her life in communist Poland.

It is for that reason that she does not vote, though she values the freedoms a democratic nation offers.

During her life in Poland, voting was never an option. Those who failed to vote were thrown in jail or beaten with rifles.

Being forced to vote didn't mean having a choice to vote, Janiga said. There was a single candidate for each office, and those candidates got -- through force -- support from the majority.

"You didn't want to be in trouble for this political reason (not voting)," she said. "You'd lose everything."

Janiga left Poland because she was blacklisted. She was fired from her government job because her mother had emigrated to America and had become a U.S. citizen, giving Janiga alleged contacts with a capitalistic nation.

Once fired, Janiga found it impossible to get work anywhere despite her bachelor's degree in teaching and her master's in business administration.

Interviewers would take one look at her name and tell her "no."

"Now I have my own business, nobody tells me if I work or not," she said.

Janiga remembers a life of few freedoms. At times she worked with a soldier over her shoulder monitoring every phone call.

Her mail was opened and censored and she had to travel 300 miles to make an untapped phone call to her mother.

She was not allowed to attend any church services, but took the risk occasionally and traveled about 12.5 miles to attend a small, unknown service.

To escape the oppression, Janiga had to say she was taking a vacation in Italy. Once her passport was approved -- a miracle in itself, she said -- she headed straight to America, having sold a brand new car to get the airfare.

She arrived in Chicago and went to a grocery store with her mother. She cried to see the full shelves, knowing she'd left a country where the shelves were bare. Even if food were available, people had to have government-issued coupons -- similar to those used during World War II -- to purchase anything.

"I can't understand people who don't realize how much they should appreciate what they have," Janiga said. "There's not much patriotism here. People don't know what they have."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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