When Kadidja Ata came to the United States from Cameroon five years ago, she knew one word in English: “Hi.”
A refugee from the Central African Republic, she was 17, and she couldn’t read or write. But thanks in part to the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based agency that aids and resettles refugees around the world, Ata now speaks English and attends college. In August, she and her mother, Rose Nzata Ayeke, both became U.S. citizens, and on Nov. 6, like millions of other Americans, they will fulfill the ultimate act of civic responsibility: They will vote.
And these brand new voters make up a pretty large block of the electorate. Since the 2008 presidential election, more than 2 million people have become naturalized, and next week many of them will be voting in a presidential election in the United States for the first time.
For 22-year-old Ata, an aspiring surgeon who works as a cashier at Abercrombie & Fitch when she’s not studying biology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the moment she casts her ballot will be especially meaningful. She was upended by a political war that claimed her father, who worked for the national assembly in the city of Bangui.
“My mom didn’t let us know when he actually passed,” said Ata, who migrated with her mother and older brother to nearby Cameroon. “We asked her, ‘Where is Dad? Where is Dad?’ A few months later, she explained to us that he was murdered by rebels back home. She didn’t want us to be traumatized. She wanted us to settle down and forget about what had happened.”
Because of her personal history, Ata, now a Bronx resident, told TODAY.com that she “never liked” politics, and yet she has spent the past few months learning about the U.S. Constitution, reading about the candidates and refining her opinions about issues including healthcare, education, social security and taxes.
“I try to analyze the arguments and counterarguments and see who has better ideas,” she said.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2,057,821 people became naturalized in the period of 2009-2011 (2012 figures are not yet available). The leading countries of birth of new citizens were Mexico, India, and the Phillipines, with the highest numbers of naturalizing persons living in California, Florida and New York.
New Yorker Dariana Castro became a citizen in August and is voting for the first time next week. As coordinator of special programs at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to new immigrants and refugees from around the world, Castro has helped many students who fled their native countries because of political persecution and war.
Despite her profession, Castro resisted the idea of becoming an American citizen for many years.
“I was almost trying to make a statement,” explained Castro, who immigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic at 10 years old. “[I was afraid] I was going to lose myself the moment I became an American. Having my Dominican passport was like holding onto my identity.”
But she changed her mind after visiting a former student at an immigration detention center.
“I realized on my train ride back that I’d been taking for granted the fact that I had access to the ultimate goal, the thing that everyone wants, the thing that everyone is working towards, the thing that my mom came here for. That’s when I really got serious about applying,” she said.
Castro registered to vote at her naturalization ceremony, in which the judge talked about the importance of exercising that right. She thought about her students, many of whom are undocumented.
“So many decisions are being made that affect them, but none of these kids has a voice,” she said. “You feel responsible to go out and represent the voice of your students.”
Zaw Htike, a 37-year-old Burmese refugee, knows what it’s like to feel voiceless. In his native country Myanmar (also known as Burma), which continues to make headlines for its brutal military regime and human rights violations, he was arrested for peaceful demonstration and originally sentenced to 21 years in prison. (He served almost seven years for the offense before being released early with a group of political prisoners.) Currently a case manager at the International Rescue Committee's Salt Lake City office, Htike has lived in the U.S. for five years, and last month he became a citizen.
“I’m very excited because I never [voted] in my life before,” said Htike, who is now married to a Burmese woman from a different ethnic group, a union that would be unlikely in Myanmar. They have a three-year-old daughter, Snow, named for the white substance that was so foreign to them when she was born.
“In my country, there’s no fair at all, and there’s no freedom at all. So, I believe I will definitely get a free and fair election here.”Still, he adds, “I’m a little hesitant after reading the campaign promises. I just want to vote for the right person.”
Ata can relate to the sense of empowerment that comes with participating in her first U.S. election.
“I feel that I have the right to say what I want to say. I have the right to have a voice.” She also feels proud of how far she has come since her first year in America, when so much was unfamiliar and intimidating.
“The weather, the food, the currency — I felt like a newborn baby who was learning how to crawl and say first words,” she recalled. Now, “We are an American family, immersed in United States society.”
And Ayeke can hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of casting her ballot.
“I need to vote! I’m so happy to be American!” she said. “This is my country now.”
Brooke Hauser is a New York-based writer and author of “The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.”
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