In Sudan, the country Hawa Mohamed fled, casting a ballot can get you killed. So when the mother of six became a U.S. citizen last August, voting was the last thing on her mind.
“In my country, if you go vote, they come and take you. Nobody knows where you go,” said Mohamed, 39, who moved to the small Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, Georgia, as a refugee in 2013. “My husband felt the same. He told me, ‘After we become citizens, we’re not going to vote. It’s not safe.’”
But that was before Mohamed and her family met Glory Kilanko, whose grassroots, social justice, nonprofit organization, Women Watch Afrika (WWA), taught them not to be afraid. With the help of Kilanko and the WWA staff, Mohamed navigated voter registration applications in the English language she still struggles to master. She took civic and English test preparation classes at WWA and became a naturalized citizen.
When Mohamed showed up at her voting precinct, she was joined in line by Kilanko, who not only asked if she needed help with translation in Arabic, but also calmed her nerves and helped her weather stares at the hijab she wears.
But a new law that widely restricts how Georgians can vote and who can provide assistance to voters threatens the sort of help that Mohamed needs. Among multiple provisions, the law criminalizes offering food and water to people too close to the voter line. It makes it harder to vote by absentee ballot, severely limits the number of secure ballot drop boxes, disqualifies most out-of-precinct provisional ballots, reduces early voting for runoff elections and dismantles local control of elections. And while the law does not explicitly ban translation services for voters, it is likely to make it harder for organizations like Women Watch Afrika to provide the comfort and emotional support that voters like Mohamed seek.
‘Shortsighted and harmful’
Enacted amid demonstrably false claims about “voter fraud” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his allies after Trump and two U.S. senators from Georgia were defeated at the polls, the law, SB 202, is a wide-ranging and blatant repudiation of voter rights in a Southern state with a long history of disenfranchisement, particularly for people of color.
Women Watch Afrika is one of a number of civil rights organizations on whose behalf the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), brought suit in federal court in March to challenge the new law, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF), and law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine.
The lawsuit, Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Kemp, charges that multiple provisions of the law violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and infringe on Georgians’ rights under the 14th and 15th amendments, as well as the First Amendment in terms of the ban on the free distribution of food and water.
“The prohibition on giving voters any kind of assistance just makes this law particularly shortsighted and harmful,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. “Nonpartisan interaction with those voters gives these new Americans, those intimidated by the process because of the political violence they are coming from, fortitude to stand in those long lines. You are talking about people who got here through the asylum process, who have very traumatic experiences in their pasts, who look to the United States as a beacon of hope and democracy, and they get here and SB 202 targets them.”
In Clarkston, convincing people to exercise their voting franchise has not been easy. The tiny, two-square-mile town of about 13,000 with affordable apartment buildings and access to public transportation has become a center of refugee resettlement in recent years. More than half its population are refugees, representing more than 60 nationalities.
Like Mohamed, many residents are struggling to pay bills, to adjust to a new country, to raise children and, in this pandemic year, to overcome the scourge of a deadly virus. Mohamed’s husband narrowly escaped death himself. He is still recovering from a terrifying bout with COVID-19 that kept him on a respirator in a hospital for weeks.
Yet these obstacles have not deterred Women Watch Afrika from getting out the vote. The organization has long helped women refugees and immigrants from 23 African countries manage their health, adjust to life in the United States and find jobs.
WWA staff, volunteers and past graduates of WWA’s programs regularly meet newly arriving refugees and immigrants where they live to teach them about participatory democracy and the benefits of getting involved in civic affairs, including apartment complex meetings, parent teacher association meetings at their children’s schools, and in local politics, to advocate for change.
In the runup to the primary and general elections in Georgia last year, and to the runoff senatorial election in January, WWA helped register voters and assisted them in filling out absentee ballot applications. WWA staff and volunteers fanned out to apartment complexes, knocking on doors to tell residents where to vote, how to get to their precincts and where to find ballot drop boxes and early voting centers. Outside precincts, Kilanko, WWA staff and volunteers gave out hand sanitizer, snacks and water to voters standing in long lines. When it started raining in some areas of the state on the day of the primary election in June, they bought ponchos at a discount store for voters who were poorly dressed for inclement weather.
Sometimes just the presence of the volunteers was all it took to give the new citizens the courage “to overcome the loneliness and fear they feel,” Kilanko said.
Kilanko has been an advocate for women for more than 40 years, from her native Nigeria – where she worked for the advancement of women and oppressed people under a military dictatorship – to the Atlanta area, where she arrived as an asylum seeker in 1997. Her own harrowing journey to the U.S. started when she was at a conference in New Zealand and was warned that security forces were hunting her down. Her father was tear-gassed, his home and hers ransacked, and her husband and children forced into the streets.
She ended up in Ghana with only the contents of her suitcase, protected by the government there but separated from her husband and children for more than a year. Her husband had to sell their possessions to finance the family’s escape.
“This journey, it is the journey that so many of us have been through to get here, to become citizens. It’s the reason it means the world to us to become civically engaged,” Kilanko said. “It is a thing of pride that we are knocking on our neighbors’ doors and telling them to go out and vote, to vote for policies that can make things better for us all.
“But now they are making it a crime for you to be around the polling area to help our community members,” Kilanko said. “We are coming from an environment where people in authority, people in uniform are not our friends. For someone to have the courage to go out and vote for the first time and be told that people can’t even go out and support you to cast your vote? It is wrong.”
Image at top: Voters wait in line to cast ballots for the Senate runoff elections at a polling location in Atlanta on Jan. 5, 2021. (Aboubacar Kante/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Read more stories from the Battle for Representation: The Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights series here.