Hawa Mohamed fled the country in Sudan. If you cast a ballot, you can be killed. When the mother of six became a US citizen last August, the last thing she thought about was the vote.
“If you vote in my country, they will come and take you with them. Nobody knows where you are going, “said Mohamed, 39, who moved to the small suburb of Atlanta, Clarkston, Georgia, as a refugee in 2013.” My husband felt the same way. He said to me, “After we become citizens, we will no longer vote. It’s not safe.'”
But that was before Mohamed and her family met Glory Kilanko, whose grassroots, social justice, nonprofit Women Watch Africa (WWA) taught them not to be afraid. With the help of Kilanko and the WWA staff, Mohamed navigated through the applications for voter registration in the English language, which she still finds difficult to master. She took civics and English prep courses at WWA and became a naturalized citizen.
When Mohamed showed up in her constituency, she was assisted by Kilanko, who not only asked if she needed help translating into Arabic, but also calmed her nerves and helped her weather stare at the hijab she is wearing.
However, a new law that largely restricts Georgians’ choices and voter support threatens the kind of help Mohamed needs. Under several provisions, the law criminalizes offering food and water to people too close to the electoral line. This complicates postal voting, severely restricts the number of secure ballot boxes, disqualifies most preliminary ballot papers outside the district, reduces early voting for runoffs, and removes local control over elections. And while the law doesn’t specifically prohibit voter translation services, organizations like Women Watch Africa will likely find it harder to provide the comfort and emotional support that voters like Mohamed seek.
“Nearsighted and Harmful”
Amid proven false claims of “election fraud” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his allies after the defeat of Trump and two US Senators from Georgia, Law SB 202 is a far-reaching and overt denial of electoral rights in a southern state a long history of disenfranchisement, especially for people of color.
Women Watch Africa is one of several civil rights organizations on whose behalf the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued the new law in federal court in March, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF) and the law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine.
In the lawsuit, African Methodist Episcopal Church Sixth District v Kemp, charges that several provisions of the law violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and violate the rights of Georgians under the 14th and 15th amendments and the first amendment in terms of the prohibition the free distribution of food and water.
“The ban on giving voters any support only makes this law particularly short-sighted and harmful,” said Nancy Abudu, associate legal director for the SPLC Voting Rights Practice Group. “The impartial interaction with these voters gives these new Americans, intimidated by the process due to the political violence they perpetrate, the strength to stand in these long lines. You speak of people who have come here through the asylum process, who have had very traumatic experiences in their past, who see the United States as a beacon of hope and democracy and who come here and SB 202 targets them. “
In Clarkston it was not easy to convince people to exercise their right to vote. The tiny, two square mile city of around 13,000 residents, affordable housing, and access to public transportation has become a hub of refugee resettlement in recent years. More than half of the population are refugees from more than 60 nationalities.
Like Mohamed, many residents are struggling to pay bills, adapt to a new country, raise children, and overcome the scourge of a deadly virus in this pandemic year. Mohammed’s husband narrowly escaped death himself. He is still recovering from a terrible battle with COVID-19 that kept him on a ventilator in a hospital for weeks.
However, these obstacles did not prevent Women Watch Africa from ending the vote. The organization has long helped refugee women and immigrants from 23 African countries manage their health, adjust to life in the United States, and find work.
WWA staff, volunteers and alumni of WWA programs meet regularly with newly arriving refugees and immigrants to educate them about participatory democracy and the benefits of engaging in civic affairs, including meetings in apartment complexes, meetings of parent-teacher associations advocate change in their children’s schools and local politics.
In the run-up to last year’s primary and general election in Georgia and the runoff in January, WWA helped register voters and fill out postal voting requests. WWA staff and volunteers gathered in apartment complexes and knocked on doors to tell residents where to vote, how to get to their districts, and where to find ballot boxes and polling stations. Outside the boroughs, Kilanko, WWA staff, and volunteers distributed hand sanitizer, snacks, and water to voters in long lines. When it began to rain in some areas of the state on the day of the June primary, they bought ponchos at a discount store for voters who were badly dressed because of bad weather.
Sometimes just the presence of the volunteers was enough to give the new citizens the courage to “overcome the loneliness and fear they feel,” said Kilanko.
Kilanko has been an advocate for women for more than 40 years, from her native Nigeria – where she worked under a military dictatorship to promote women and the oppressed – to Atlanta, where she arrived as an asylum seeker in 1997 and began her own harrowing journey to the USA. when she was at a conference in New Zealand and was warned that security forces were hunting her. Her father was gassed in tears, his house and house ransacked, and her husband and children were forced onto the street.
She ended up in Ghana with only the contents of her suitcase, which was protected by the local government but separated from her husband and children for more than a year. Her husband had to sell her possessions to fund the family’s escape.
“This journey is the journey so many of us have been through to get here and become citizens. That’s why it means the world to us to be civic, ”said Kilanko. “It is a matter of pride that we knock on our neighbors’ doors and tell them to go out and vote to vote for policies that can make things better for all of us.
“But now they are making it a crime for you to be at the polling station to help our community members,” Kilanko said. “We come from an environment in which people in authority and uniformed people are not our friends. So that someone has the courage to go out and vote for the first time and find out that people don’t even go out and help you cast your vote? It is wrong.”
Above: Voters wait in line to cast ballots for the Senate runoff elections at a polling station in Atlanta on January 5, 2021. (Aboubacar Kante / Bloomberg via Getty Images)