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Voices for Obama resound from afar

Gazan student and friends spend nights calling U.S. voters, urging them to support the Democratic candidate

From Monday's Globe and Mail

NUSSEIRAT REFUGEE CAMP, GAZA STRIP — For every point that U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama gains ahead of the Nov. 4 election, a young student in a sparsely furnished room an ocean away is taking enormous satisfaction.

For months, Ibrahim Abu Jayyab has been working through the night, telephoning American voters at random to plead in broken English that they support his favourite candidate.

Never mind that most of the people Mr. Abu Jayyab calls don't even know where the Gaza Strip is, much less understand why this man with heavily accented English crackling down the phone line should care about the U.S. presidential race.

"Obama is the best candidate. He has leadership qualities, he is charismatic. Once he said the Palestinian people are suffering most in the world," Mr. Abu Jayyab says, his eyes heavy after another late night, already back at the computer that is his pride and joy in a life otherwise dominated by poverty. On screen is an enormous photo of Mr. Obama in a classic pose - which has, perhaps, inspired Mr. Abu Jayyab's recurring dreams, of Mr. Obama putting a hand on his shoulder and promising peace.

A media student at Gaza's al-Aqsa University, Mr. Abu Jayyab, 23, has chafed at the strict religious rule enforced since the Islamist Hamas organization took control 17 months ago. A heavy economic embargo, imposed by the international community after Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, has collapsed Gaza's economy and squelched any hope of finding a decent job after graduation.

Like most in Gaza and across the Arab world, the young man blames U.S. President George W. Bush for the mess, in part for his unwavering support of Israel. So when a young, black American senator emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic primaries, he found himself hoping for change, even here in the never-changing Middle East.

Mr. Abu Jayyab, who speaks little English and at first left only practised messages on telephone answering machines, has since enlisted the help of 15 friends to use computer VOIP programs, including iCall, to randomly call U.S. telephone numbers. They frequently meet in a nearby Internet café, where they work in fear that Hamas forces or even more radical groups will burst in.

Of the dozens of calls they'll make each night between midnight and 4 a.m. - early evening in most of the United States - Mr. Abu Jayyab and his friends say they may only speak to one out of every 10 households. They've encountered answering machines, small children, and often people impatient with their Arabic-accented English.

But they press on, encouraged by small victories from people who promise to consider the request. Last week, they intensified their campaign, selecting area codes to target the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. "We think if Barack Obama wins, maybe he will make a difference here for the better," said Omar Tawil, 25, a friend and computer science student who set up the computer programs necessary for their nightly mission.

It's possible that their efforts - entirely volunteer and completely unsanctioned by the Obama campaign - may do as much harm as good. Mr. Obama's campaign team has publicly distanced itself from these campaign calls, after rival John McCain's charges that Hamas supports Mr. Obama.

And in neighbouring Israel, where the Democratic Party has had a difficult time selling a man named Barack Hussein Obama, the chairman of their Israel for Obama campaign cannot quite praise Mr. Abu Jayyab's earnest efforts.

"I suppose they can say what they like," Yeshiya Amariel said, before worrying out loud about the smear campaign insinuating that Mr. Obama had ties to radical Islam. "Most people will say a Palestinian endorsement will definitely be harmful."

Mr. Obama landed himself in hot water with the powerful American Jewish lobby last year when he told a small Iowa audience that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." Since then, he has worked hard to court the pro-Israel vote.

Still, when he was selected as the Democratic candidate, a panel of Israeli authors, professors and former diplomats known as The Israel Factor ranked him dead last of all possible presidential candidates, scoring at 5.12 out of 10. Mr. McCain, the Republican candidate, was given a respectable 7.75.

Mr. Abu Jayyab and his friends are nonetheless determined to continue their efforts until election day.

"We are feeling confident that Obama is gaining," Mr. Abu Jayyab said. "There is a large number of people with the right to vote and we are only a few people making calls. But when Obama won the primary, we felt it already was a victory."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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