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Columbus Somalis Gain U.S. Citizenship, Head For The Polls

Columbus' Somali population has evolved from a refugee community in the middle to late 1990s to an estimated population of 40,000 or more with thriving businesses, social organizations, and neighborhood mosques. And during this presidential election year, its estimated Somalis who have now gained U.S. citizenship will cast 10,000 or more votes.

A crowd is gathering at Mifflin International School on the city's northeast side for the annual candidates forum sponsored by Somali-led community groups. A group of Somali women, in traditional dress, are eager to talk about the election and their favorite candidate.

"Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama!" (Interpreter Khadra Jama: "She says she believes the right leader for this country will be Obama.")

Among the small group of women, all express support for Senator Obama. Interpreter Khadra Jama asks whether this election will be the first time they vote in America.

Interpreter Khadra Jama: "She says this is the first time they will cast their vote."

And these women will have lots of company at the polls. Somali community leaders estimate as many as 10,000 to 14,000 former refugees from Somalia's civil strife have now gained citizenship and voting rights in central Ohio.

Ahmed Mohamed of the Somali American Chamber of Commerce says Senator Obama's candidacy is also a big factor in drawing Somalis to the polls.

"This election is a historic election because we will have the first candidate, African-American candidate running for the president. For that reason it's historic," Mohamed said.

Mohamed's colleague, Abdulkadir Ali, says his business organization has endorsed Obama for president.

"We are excited to support the Obama administration because his vision is a great vision. And I think its not black and white issue, it's an American issue," Ali said.

As Ali makes his point, Jabril Hirsi, host of a local Somali radio program, joins the conversation. He's a supporter of John McCain.

"We have differences with him. We have issues that we disagree with the Democratic Party. We have issues that we disagree with his own policies personally. It is not that we all agree with Barack Obama. Some of us support and even campaign for John McCain and would be willing to campaign for John McCain," Hirsi said.

Hirsi says he's launched a website for McCain. As hallway conversations wind down, a nearly full auditorium awaits the candidates for state and local races. But, during the first hour, only one candidate shows up. He's David Robinson, Democratic candidate for the 12th Congressional District.

"It's an important number of votes. We figure there's probably going to be somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 votes cast totally for the 12th Congressional seat, so 10,000 votes or so is an important constituency," Robinson said.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News.