Like many New Hampshire college students, Bhola Gautam’s first opportunity to vote will come during the state’s presidential primary. But, when he casts his ballot early next month, he will have followed a path to the polls that’s longer and more complicated than most of his peers can imagine.
It began in 2010 when, along with his family, Gautam left a refugee camp in Nepal and arrived in Concord, N.H., where he attended school, made friends, and, early last December, was sworn in as a US citizen. Now a junior at Plymouth State University, he’s researching the presidential candidates and looking forward to the Feb. 9 vote.
“I can’t wait,” Gautam said. “I have never, ever voted for anyone. That moment will be one the of greatest in my whole life.”
One common criticism of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is that the electorate lacks racial diversity. That’s true — roughly 94 percent of residents identified as white on the 2010 Census. But the state is also home to a growing population of refugees eager to embrace local political traditions and help pick the next president.
In the past 30 years, roughly 7,500 refugees have settled in New Hampshire, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Refugees are a specific class of immigrant who are forced to leave their homes because of persecution. They’ve come to New Hampshire from more than 30 countries including Iraq, Somalia, and Congo. Since 2008, the largest group of refugees — about 2,100 — have, like Gautam’s family, come from Bhutan.
In general, refugees have to be in the United States for at least five years before they’re eligible to apply for citizenship. Those who do become citizens tend to be enthusiastic voters, said Victoria Adewumi, a first-generation American who has worked with refugees through jobs at a variety of nonprofits. New Hampshire, she says, gives newcomers an intense introduction to politics.
“This is their chance to be part of the American election process they’ve been hearing about,” she said. “They are so, so knowledgeable. They know exactly who the candidates are. It’s a very well-educated group.”
Gautam, 20, is enjoying his up-close view of presidential politics and was thrilled when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders visited Plymouth State last fall. Gautam appreciated what Sanders said about making college more affordable.
“I like his ideas, how he wants to help and raise the middle class,” he said.
Gautam is still imagining what it will be like to vote, but Bhagirath and Sudha Khatiwada already know. Originally from Bhutan, the Khatiwadas arrived in the United States in 2008, became citizens last March, and, in November, participated in a mayoral election in Concord.
“It was more than just voting for us,” Bhagirath Khatiwada said, grinning. “It gave me ownership in the country.”
Sudha Khatiwada, 34, smiled just as broadly as her husband. “They might win because of me,” she said.
She works as a translator, a job that often takes her to hospitals and medical offices. As a result, she’s looking for a candidate who has ideas to make health care more accessible and affordable, especially for children and the elderly.
For Bhagirath Khatiwada, 40, the issues that matter most are immigration, security, and affordable higher education. He likes what he’s heard from the Democratic candidates but is troubled by what he describes as Islamaphobic undertones from many of the Republicans.
“Making higher walls cannot solve the refugee crisis in the world,” he said. “We need to do a better job of welcoming refugees of all cultures.”
He’s a director at the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit dedicated to helping refugees acclimate to their new homes while preserving their culture. That role means he spends a lot of time contemplating how politicians talk about immigrants, something he says should shape an international conversation about the issue.
“If all the candidates focus on making refugees more welcome, that will change the tone of the rest of the world,” he said.
Honore Murenzi is also devoted to supporting refugees as the founder and director of New American Africans. Originally from Congo, he came to the United States in 2001 on a tourist visa and was later granted asylum. When he casts his first American ballot next month, he’ll be supporting a candidate “with heart to serve the country, serve everybody, not just himself.”
He hasn’t decided who will receive his vote, but the issue that matters to him the most is reducing bureaucracy. Navigating layers of government agencies, laws, and regulations is frustrating, he says, and can lead to disenfranchisement.
“The system here, I call it a jungle,” said Murenzi, who is 59 and lives in Chichester, N.H. “The worst jungle is America. You see everything, but you don’t see anything. . . . How can the system be more transparent for everybody, Americans, newcomers, everybody?”
A simpler system is about more than convenience. To him, it’s a tool to prevent radicalization.
“When people don’t feel welcome, it’s easy to sow bad ideas to say that America is not good,” he said.
That sense of belonging is something he’ll carry with him to the polls next month. Voting is about picking a president, but it’s also a part of becoming a full part of a new community after leaving so much behind.
“When you leave your country, you lose your neighborhood. You leave everything,” he said. “Birds. Trees. The air your breathe. Your relatives. Everything you love.”