A local artist sends his vote to Iraq

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:56

    Najim Chechen traveled to Washington, D.C., last Thursday to participate in the Iraqi elections. He had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. "I voted for the person and party I think could bring all ethnic groups and religions together and work toward a prosperous future for Iraq," said Chechen, who lives in Otisville. He was one of several hundred thousand Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries allowed to take part in electing a national assembly. Many hope the election will help democracy take root in the Middle East. Chechen was born in 1946 in Kirkuk, in the northern part of Iraq. His late father was a Sunni Muslim and his mother is a Shia, both of them Turkmen, an ethnic minority in Iraq. After graduating from the University of Baghdad in 1970 with a degree in fine arts, Chechen worked as a sculptor and teacher. He left for the United States in 1980 to study at the Pratt Institute in New York. Harassment toward ethnic minorities was common under Baath Party leadership, and Chechen wasn't spared. In 1980, shortly after a military interrogation, he had given up hope of living. Miraculously, the officer in charge decided to spare his life. He gave Chechen 24 hours to pack his bags and leave the country. This past Monday, Chechen's initial enthusiasm about the election had shifted to concern about Iraq's future. He stays in constant touch with his 84-year-old mother, his siblings, and his friends in Iraq. He spoke to his mother, who lives in Baghdad, on Monday. She hadn't voted because she was worried about her safety, and because the distance to the polling booth was too far. This was why many people, especially the elderly, did not vote, he said. "What the people need most at the moment are jobs, clean water, electricity, and security," said Chechen. With all the bombing and the dead bodies refuse that have been dumped into the rivers since the war began, clean drinking water has become scarce. Among the few people making money in Iraq right now are those selling imported bottled water. One of Chechen's biggest concerns is that the soil might be contaminated by the megatons of bombs dropped during the past two years, causing serious health consequences in the future. Chechen despises violence. Despite the torture he suffered under Saddam Hussein, he believes the loss of human life, the crippled infrastructure, and devastated environment too high a price to pay for the dictator's ouster. But he hopes the future will be kinder to the Iraqis and all others who have suffered during the war. He said he was unsure whether or not last Sunday's election would be enough to bring democracy to the Middle East. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will have a bigger impact on the political dynamics of the region, he said. Chechen is the founder of the Hudson Valley Sculptor Society, which brings together local artists and helps them advance in their careers. In 2003, when he visited Iraq for the first time in almost 23 years, he was able to see for himself how people there were suffering. When he came home he began to make sculptures, pastels, and drawings reflecting his thoughts and feelings about his native country. He donated the money he made from selling these works directly to people in need in Iraq. His first show dedicated to this project was held at the Goshen Inn one year ago. "In this exhibition, my recent works reflect the dreams for the future that Iraqi people have," he said at the time. Since the war started, Chechen has contributed nearly $10,000 to the people of Iraq. He plans to continue the project, as the need for this kind of support is greater than ever, he said.