United States: Refugees vote for the first time
PHOENIX – Handpicked by the United States based on a long humanitarian tradition, they have come from countries such as Myanmar, Eritrea and Iraq to escape war and persecution.
Today, tens of thousands of refugees hosted under the Obama administration are U.S. citizens, and they will vote for the first time in what may be the most crucial presidential election of their lives.
While some states have already begun sending out advance ballots, those who will be voting for the first time in states ranging from Arizona to Florida are excited, but also aware of their responsibility to help choose the country’s next leader.
The winner will decide the fate of the resettlement program that gave them a new life, but which President Donald Trump eviscerated and may abolish entirely in the next fiscal year.
“Most refugees flee to this country to escape political systems where the government is not their friend,” said Hans Van de Weerd, the vice president in charge of resettlement for the International Rescue Committee, a large agency that brings refugees to the United States. It is very important for them to be heard.”
Republican and Democratic administrations have averaged just under 100,000 refugees a year for 40 years, but the Trump administration has imposed a cap of 18,000. Only half of that number arrived this year because of the pandemic.
This downward trend is expected to continue if Trump is re-elected. His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, has promised to pursue a target of 125,000 refugees each year.
No official data is available, but the National Partnership for New Americans predicted that 860,000 immigrants would gain the right to vote this year, even though the cost of becoming a U.S. citizen jumped 83 per cent from US$640 to US$1170 – just to name one hurdle.
Citizenship courses offered by the International Rescue Committee have helped some 6,000 refugees become U.S. citizens every year in recent years. Other groups are doing the same.
Department of Homeland Security data shows that Refugees can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years as permanent residents.
Once they officially become Americans, they can register to vote.
“So many of them want to vote this time,” said Basma Alawee, a refugee who works with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. The organization organizes online sessions to help refugees prepare to vote.
Born in Iraq and now a U.S. citizen living in Jacksonville, Florida, Alawee will also cast her first presidential vote on November 3.
Here’s what other refugees who will vote in the United States for the first time had to say.
BILAL ALOBAIDI remembers the elections in Iraq, when only the name of dictator Saddam Hussein appeared on the ballot. The only choices were “yes” or “no”.
“And if you answered ‘no’, something bad could happen to you,” said Alobaidi, who arrived in the United States in December 2013.
He moved to Phoenix, a city whose sweltering heat reminds him of his hometown of Mosul, and was naturalized last year.
Formerly a social worker with the International Organization for Migration, Mr. Alobaidi now works for the International Rescue Committee. He helps other refugees who have arrived in Arizona obtain housing and other services.
Alobaidi says he looks forward to voting for his candidate.
“This will be my first time practicing democracy,” he said. I’m so looking forward to it.”
BAWI UK was very small when his parents fled Myanmar, trusting him and his siblings to their maternal grandmother.
Mr. UK says he was discriminated against as a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country. The military junta also tried to enlist his father by force.
“To run for office, you had to be a Buddhist; to rent a house, you had to be a Buddhist,” said Mr. UK, who studies social work at Rhode Island College and is involved with the Refugee Dream Center, a group of young activists in Providence.
NADA AL-RUBAYE says she never voted in her native Iraq, which she fled after her eldest son and several other family members were killed in violence.
The Baghdad-born artist and another of her sons spent a few years in Turkey and then moved to Phoenix in 2013.
An American citizen since September 2019, she now sells her paintings and jewelry online.
I’m so excited,” she said about the election, smiling broadly. It’s very important for someone to have a sense of belonging to a country.”
HABTOM GEZHEY fled Eritrea after being conscripted into the army for an undetermined number of years.
He first lived in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia before settling in Florida in 2012.
Now a truck driver who transports goods across the country, he lives in Jacksonville with his wife Eyerusalem, whom he met in the camp, and their two young children.
“I’m ready to vote,” he said. There were no elections in Eritrea, no constitution.”
JAD “JAY” JAWAD was 17 years old when his family fled death threats and conflict in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein’s government had targeted Jawad’s father as the manager of a hotel frequented by U.S. military personnel. The family moved to Phoenix, where they all became U.S. citizens.
Jawad now runs a restaurant. He and his wife, also an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, are expecting their first child in the spring.
LIAN KUAL never voted in Myanmar, where elections held during decades of military rule were denounced as fraudulent.
He fled to Malaysia in 2008 and moved to Salt Lake City in 2014. He works there at night at Walmart and obtained his citizenship this year.
“I feel so free in the United States,” he said. I’ve already registered to vote. It’s very important to me.”