Refugees Finding Their Voices in Denver

By Sarah Ford

Photo by Sarah HarveyOn an unusually warm fall afternoon, dozens of refugees and new American citizens flock around a small stage set in a schoolyard abandoned for the weekend. They crowd into the shade, sweating under American flag hijabs and long dresses, waving small American flags in their hands for the breeze as much as a show of pride. 

Behind them, handwritten signs have been placed on the modules, advertising where visitors can learn about this year’s candidates, issues on the Colorado ballot, and the voting process. 

On stage, a man in a suit leans toward the mic, peering up from his notes and into the faces scattered in front of him, his voice rising in passion as he finishes the end of his speech. 

“We are in the land of possibilities. Here, whatever we want we can do. We came from a place where our voice was not heard,” he says. The crowd rustles in agreement. 

“Those who are citizen, one of the biggest things that we got is civic engagement. With the privilege comes responsibilities...vote. Register to vote. Are you ready to vote?”

He is answered with applause and cheers, from men and women, children and elderly. They wave their flags into the sky, waving them this time in a clear show of excitement. 

Among the cheering crowd are some of the 6,000 refugees expected to relocate in Colorado this year. In Aurora, where the rally is being held, 20 percent of residents are foreign-born, one of the highest concentrations of refugee and foreign-born citizens in the state. 

They are also about to become part of the Colorado electorate, a rising voice throughout the state and nation. From October 2015 to June 2016, 718,000 permanent residents applied for citizenship in the United States. That number is up eight percent compared to the same time period prior to the 2012 election, according to the Pew Research Center. And they are about to cast their first ever votes. 

The man onstage is Bhuwam Pyakurel, a former refugee relocated to Colorado Springs in 2009 after spending 18 years in an Indian refugee camp. 

Pyakurel has been living in the United States for seven years, but this will be his first chance to vote after becoming an American citizen in 2015. However, the lengthy process hasn’t stopped him from becoming civically involved as quickly and deeply as possible. That has been his dream since first arriving in the United States. 

“At that time in Colorado Springs I did not know much about [voting or civic engagement], but it was inside me that it was something I had to do because we are not allowed to speak our voice when we are in the country of our birth,” says Pyakurel. “We are forced out of our land because we are not allowed to speak. And I was thinking that it is some kind of dream come true to speak about what I want.”

He started speaking, and hasn’t stopped. 

By day, Pyakurel works as an interpretation services coordinator for Primary One Health in Columbus, Ohio. But he sees civic engagement as his real job. His nights and weekends are spent at city council meetings, school board meetings, in mayor’s offices and on the streets as a grassroots organizer. He has visited the Capital Building and even the White House advocating for refugee issues in Colorado, and has delegated representatives Diana DeGette and Mike Coffman for additional state funding for refugee issues.

He moved to Columbus recently, but Pyakurel traveled back to Colorado to speak at the Colorado African Organization 2016 “Connect the Vote” event, teaching new citizens the voting and registration process for the upcoming election.

It is not just passion that drives Pyakurel back to Colorado, but what he sees as a deep sense of responsibility that comes with the opportunities he and other refugees have found. 

“The responsibility is you have to get involved and make things as you want,” he says. “Everybody likes better schools. Everybody wants better roads. You’ve got to get involved with the people who make those decisions and make them accountable.”

His belief that the duty of involvement falls back on new citizens and refugees is echoed by Netsanet Dumam, who attends the event with her young son. She just became a naturalized citizen in August and asked for time off work to attend the event preparing her for her first election. 

“I have a challenge to vote and to present my voice. How I am going to vote is how I am going to present my voice,” she says. “My voice has matter, that’s why I am here.” 

She, too, believes that becoming a citizen means she must engage on a local and national level. Her voice is too valuable to go silent. 

“They have so much pride. So much pride in democracy and what our country represents,” says Jill Fricker, executive director of Colorado African Organization (CAO), which works with refugees on the long-term process of integration into an entirely new country, state, and city. 

Pyakurel believes in engagement that goes beyond one day in four years. The refugee community is large and ever-growing, he points out. The community has a stake in local and state politics, and a reason to exercise that voice. He wants to make sure they are always heard. 

“Refugees are a contributing factor, they are not at the bottom,” he says. “More refugees...is more diversity, more engagement, and more good for the city.” 

Statistics show that the voices of refugees and new Americans matter, too. A 2016 survey measuring the success of refugee integration in Colorado, called the RISE survey, found that civic engagement numbers among the refugee community have jumped in the past several years. 

The survey measured a sharp rise in the number of refugees who reported advocating for themselves or others at 7.3 percent. Meanwhile, the number who reported participating in community meetings or community volunteerism nearly doubled to nine and seven percent respectively. 

Yet even with the enthusiasm shown by so much of the community, involvement rarely happens easily. 

There are a number of hurdles to jump. One of the biggest and most obvious is language. But as Fricker points out, there are plenty of other obstacles that are less frequently considered. 

Among them, the challenges of single moms seeking to get involved and organizations trying to navigate high populations of new voters, sometimes making the system seem inaccessible. 

That’s why the CAO did extra outreach through the election cycle, pairing new citizens with mentor naturalized citizens who could understand their unique challenges. 

Denver, too, has made increasing efforts in outreach. Three years ago, the city established its Refugee and Immigrant Commission, which works to build bridges between refugee citizens and the community. 

But Fricker says the challenges create a more hopeful picture—that the number of refugees and former citizens seeking to get involved is high enough to create a challenge.

“People are inspired right now, people are being heard in Denver and being told ‘you matter,’” she says. 

That is what Pyakurel understood years ago. That is what Dumam and thousands of others like her are hearing now.

Pyakurel hopes the enthusiasm of the election will carry far past November. He hopes it will bring more refugees and new citizens into school board meetings, town halls and city council, and further into the public eye. 

“It is on us,” he says. “If we want to make a change, we can make a change.” ■