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SATURDAY, October 01, 2022
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Immigrants who are first-time voters know how much is at stake next week

Immigrants who are first-time voters know how much is at stake next week

FRIDAY, October 30, 2020
504

Ahmed "A.J." Mikhlif is 42 and he's voting for the first time in his life next week.

Because back in Iraq, where civil unrest and corrupt regimes roil the government, voting was always "voting."

"Here, you vote for two people or maybe three people," Mikhlif said. "In Iraq, there was one person. It wasn't voting. You like or you dislike that person. And that was all."

Mikhlif and his wife became U.S. citizens in December, and they are joining the swelling population of naturalized citizens who are eligible voters.

Their numbers have nearly doubled in the last 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center - and they range from translators to busboys, physical education teachers to doctors. 

They also include Dame Helen Mirren, who recently became a U.S. citizen and cast her ballot in the dusty town of Minden, Nev., and comic Jimmy O. Yang, whose shtick on his immigrant parents has endeared him to generations of kids both mortified and proud of their parents' accents and quirks.

And they include Maha al-Obaidi. It took 66 years for her to feel like she was part of her own government. In Iraq, she said ballots were changing, and no one knew if anything was fair. Then two of her sons and husband were kidnapped and the family had to pay exorbitant ransoms. They had to flee.

Today, she is in Astoria, Queens, voting as an American.

"Now, I feel this is my country, this is it. I have my roots here now," she said.

She is hoping her vote can help change the U.S. policy - President Donald Trump's travel ban - that is keeping her two sons trapped in Jordan.

Saba Barkneh's first vote as an American couldn't have been more, well, American.

"It was a drive-through," she said. "It was easy. Done in 10 minutes. And I got a sticker."

Nothing like what her relatives back in Ethiopia endure at the polls - including an effort just to travel to them.

"I'm learning from my family members that voting is a struggle there," said Barkneh, 45, a marathoner and a nutritionist at Goodwin House in Prince William County, a senior-living facility that has a program helping new immigrants become naturalized citizens. "Being able to reach the voting sites, people thinking, 'My vote is not counting.' ... People don't feel like their vote is making a difference."

These first-time voters bring with them an appreciation for American democracy, the ideals they've been worshiping from afar for years. And they have the fire and urgency to keep this shining city upon a hill bright, especially as they see the darkness of this year's election.

Mikhlif, who worked as a translator for the United States military in Iraq for eight years, was stunned to see the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment when he, his wife and their children arrived in Charlottesville, Va.

He works with other immigrants through the International Neighbors program there and is hoping to cast a ballot on Tuesday that will make some difference in not only policies toward immigrants, but also attitudes.

"America was built on the shoulders of immigrants," he said.

The division and strife in America today has been shocking for the family of Diana Mateo, who immigrated from Guatemala when she was 9.

"That ideal they had in mind is tarnished," said the 25-year-old paralegal in D.C. 

Andrew Martin never voted when he lived in his native South Africa, which he left when he was 25.

"I am now 39. One thing that inspired me to vote here is the idea that my vote may actually count," said Martin, who left his native country as it was still reckoning with perilous inequities despite the end of apartheid. "In South Africa, I never felt that way."

He arrived in America in 2007 as "a wide-eyed young immigrant who was hopeful that he stepped right into the 'American Dream.' "

"What I've seen since 2016 is not only embarrassing, it's sad, often scary, and frankly extremely depressing," he said, of the rise of anti-Semitism, white supremacy and shades of authoritarianism.

"I know I am fortunate. I'm a White man who speaks English," he said. "But I am completely turned off when people mention the 'American Dream.' This America is no dream - this is what people come to America to escape."

Grace Okono is urgent in her mission to get other Americans to understand the danger the nation is facing. 

"Americans should be on guard," said Okono, 45, who lived in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria before coming to the United States to study in D.C. more than 20 years ago. "When you have something very good, as good as Americans have it, they have to learn to fight to keep it and protect it, just like anything that is bequeathed to you."

The arguments about voter suppression, the court hearings about mail-in ballots and the confusion in this election worry her. They're too familiar.

"They are reminiscent of a corrupt regime," she said.

So it was with a deliberate urgency that Okono completed her citizenship process and took her daughter with her to vote in their new hometown of Frisco, Texas.

"Some of us who are immigrants, we've come from a place where things are much worse," she said. "And we know how important this next week is."