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Former Refugee Teaches New Americans How to Vote

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Born in Kenya, Mohamed Jafar has always believed in the power of finding your voice, a passion that has made him a champion of voting rights for New Americans in his home of Burlington, Vermont.

Mohamed, his parents, and three siblings came to Vermont in 2003 when he was seven years old through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (now USCRI Vermont). After a few months with their host family, Mohamed entered school and eventually graduated from Burlington High School before getting a degree at Colby Sawyer College, a small private school in New London, NH.

“I remember that Amila Merdzanovic (USCRI Vermont’s director) was there to meet us at the airport when we got off the plane,” Mohamed recalled. “The help we received over those first several months was invaluable. One of the biggest benefits was getting connected in the community, meeting our neighbors, getting connected with resources and knowing the program staff were there to support us.”

After graduation, Mohamed joined the USCRI Vermont Advisory Committee and helped organize Destination BTV, its annual fundraiser, while simultaneously serving as a member of the city’s Board for Registration of Voters. During his time on the city board, Mohamed has become a powerful voice for the voting rights of New Americans. With the help of the Secretary of State’s Office and sponsors including USCRI, in January 2020 Mohamed helped launch a series of outreach and voter information events to engage New American voters with a how-to video on voting and the roll out of ballots translated into six different languages (Somali, Nepali, Swahili, French, Arabic, and Burmese).

“Participating in democracy is important, but language can be a big barrier,” he said. “New Americans find themselves still on the outskirts of this process because they don’t feel familiar. My hope is that people will feel comfortable when people going into the booths to vote, and vote in an informed way.”

Through his work as a voting rights advocate and a supporter of USCRI, Mohamed believes one of the most important lessons is to focus on instilling the privilege and pride of voting for a group of people who may never have had the freedom to do so before. “Some of us come from monarchies that do not possess even the concept of voting. You have a voice, so you should use that voice.”