Graphic by COURIER.
Graphic by COURIER.

Abdul Jabbar and Usman Sheikh are just two of the millions of Muslim residents of the United States. Both are casting their ballots for the first time in the 2020 election.

Abdul Jabbar was denied the right to vote in his home country. The 2020 presidential election is the very first time the 35-year-old has cast a ballot—ever. And that’s a big deal. 

Jabbar is one of over a million Rohingya refugees who fled his birth country after enduring brutalized violence at the hands of militias and Buddhist monks.

“I feel so different. This is all a big surprise to me because even though I was born in my country, I didn’t have this kind of right in my own country,” Jabbar told COURIER. “But I came [to the United States] around seven years ago, and within seven years, I have become a citizen. I have full rights as a US citizen, which includes the right to vote and the right to choose my leader.”

From a Rohingya Refugee Fleeing Myanmar to the Ballot Box in the United States

For the last half-century, the Rohingya—an ethnic Muslim minority group in Myanmar, which is a predominantly Burmese and Buddhist country—have been on the receiving end of brutal ethnic violence and genocide. In recent years, militias (often inspired by Buddhist monks) have reportedly pillaged and burned their villages, raped and abused their women, killed many of their elders and children, and forced their men into concentration camps. In 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Rohingya people are “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world.”

Jabbar was 13 when he fled his home in Myanmar, navigating the world as an undocumented person and refugee through Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. In 2012, Jabbar resettled in Chicago, Illinois, and seven years later—in 2019—he became a naturalized US citizen.

“When I visited the US, I felt like a newborn baby. I started to build this new life here, and in the end, I got what I want: I became a citizen and a first-time voter as a Rohingya refugee in the US,” Jabbar added. “I feel very grateful to this country and the opportunity that it gave me that I never had in my own country.” 

In addition to his traumatic experiences in Myanmar, Jabbar was motivated to vote in the 2020 election after watching the outcome of the presidential election four years prior. Despite contributing to the American economy and society by working full-time and helping fellow refugees find employment, Jabbar was unable to vote in the 2016 election. 

For more than four years in the United States, Jabbar witnessed rhetoric from Trump and his supporters that are similar to what is said in his home country: the villainization and character assassinations of refugees and immigrants like him. But what hurt him the most was the Trump administration’s immigrant and refugee policies, which prevented him from helping his relatives and friends resettle in the US. 

Now, after voting in the 2020 election, he hopes that will all change.

“There were less Rohingya people able to come to the US after our current president was elected,” Jabbar added.”I felt sad for my people because my people are suffering. The Rohingya people are suffering everywhere.”

If the resettlement process continues to decline, Jabbar added, it will become more of a problem. The 35-year-old voter now has big hopes after learning that one of the first things Biden plans to do, if elected president, is to allow more refugees to enter the country. 

“I also hope that the next president will take immediate action against the Myanmar government for committing genocide,” he added.

Immigrants Help Fuel the Economy—They May Also Determine the Next President

Throughout his campaign, Biden has promised to reverse President Trump’s crackdown on refugee admission. If elected, the Democratic nominee said he would increase refugee admissions in the US from 15,000 to 125,000 and ease Trump’s hardline immigration policies, which could exponentially improve the American economy.

Jabbar is also one of 3.45 million Muslims living in the US. Although Muslim-Americans make up only about 1% of the population, they could still have an outsized influence in this election. History has proven this to be true. 

In 2000, the Muslim voting block overwhelmingly voted for George Bush. The 43rd president won Florida after receiving about 14,000 more Muslim votes than his opponent Al Gore, although most Muslim voters were registered as Democrats. Unlike the Democratic campaign, the Bush campaign made aggressive efforts to involve and engage with the Muslim community.

On Nov. 3, Muslims are expected to not only have an outsized impact on the election, but potentially have the ability to swing the election in one direction or the other. There are substantial Muslim populations in key and battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. In Michigan alone, there are 270,000 Muslims. 

Recently, the US Immigration Policy Center (USIPC) at the University of California, San Diego, discovered that Muslim voters in Arizona and Georgia are more eager to vote on Election Day than ever before, which could significantly influence the results of the presidential election. 

Trump’s Racist Rhetoric Has Motivated Many This Year

Usman Sheikh, a Virginia resident, happens to be one of the many Muslim-Americans residing in a swing state. He is also a first-time voter. The 42-year-old Pakistani immigrant arrived in the US in 2000. In May 2019, he became a naturalized citizen. 

The first time he went to the voting booth was during the 2020 presidential primaries, and he cast his ballot for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. Sheikh was motivated to vote in this election after seeing the effect of Trump’s racist rhetoric on the country.

“When President Trump was making a lot of noise about immigrants and Muslims, I could see that it was translating into something popular amongst people I was around,” Usman told COURIER. “I met a lot of people—even some who were Democrats or liberals—and told me they thought it was not a bad idea to ban Muslims or build a wall because there are problems.”

In addition to Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, Sheikh was also eager to vote in this election after seeing how the police have treated Black and Muslim people. He’s also disturbed by how some police officers have reportedly used Trump’s re-election efforts to intimidate communities of color in some parts of the United States. “I’m kind of a little scared [of the police] because they are his base,” Sheikh added. 

Although he supported Sanders in the Democratic primary, Sheikh is optimistic about Biden after learning that he will be working with the Vermont senator’s team to establish more progressive policies. 

“Initially, I was kind of mad that Bernie was filtered out by the Democrat establishment, but now we have Joe Biden,” he added. “I’m glad that Bernie Sander’s policy team is working with the Joe Biden team to come up with more progressive policies. We can also always bank on [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and people like her to push for more progressive policies.”

Working as a Community to Get Out the Vote

Now, with Election Day just five days away, Sheikh and Jabbar are working hard to encourage and mobilize their respective communities to go out and vote. Jabbar, a senior case manager at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago, has been organizing voter registration drives and gathering eligible voters in his community to commute to polling sites together.

“I made plans to [early] vote with my community center, and we went to vote together,” Jabbar said. “We are now organizing a group of people to go to the voting center so that they can also vote for the first time in their lives in the US general election. We are continuing to help each other. We are teaching each other how to vote.”

In Virginia, Sheikh is spreading the world to mobilize the immigrant and Muslim community to get out and vote. “I just expect people to come out as a number—especially the diaspora from other countries like Pakistan, India, and other countries in South Asia, and even the younger folks,” he added. “We need to take ownership of who we are and make other people understand that we are here.”

Sheikh believes the Muslim-American community is often cornered to appease the status quo. With anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in many parts of the world, Sheikh said Muslims are often put in a defensive position and don’t often get the chance to tell their story. Voting allows them that chance. 

“I hope that we, as Muslim community and the immigrant diaspora from other [Muslim-majority] countries, come out and make their voices heard,” Sheikh added. “We need to all go out to vote and be engaged in social and political activism.”