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New Mainers Learn about Democracy at Immigrant Welcome Center

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Thursday, October 20, 2022   

Understanding the rules about elections can be confusing for anyone, and for immigrants who are eligible to vote, the process can often be unnerving.

Despite being U.S. citizens, they fear they will make a mistake, and some struggle to believe they truly have the right to vote, especially if they have experienced political persecution in their home country.

Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, and a refugee himself who arrived in Portland from Iran some 35 years ago, said the desire among immigrants to vote is very high.

"To them, it's also one way of, again, proving to themselves and others that they are Americans," Jalali explained. "That they're gaining a sense of ownership in the community."

Jalali will share those sentiments tonight when the Immigrant Welcome Center hosts an informational event on the democratic process with Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. It begins at 5 p.m. at the Jewish Community Alliance in Portland.

Mainers can register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day, even Election Day. Jalali emphasized he wants to help new Mainers make a plan to vote, from securing transportation to the polls to better understanding the process once they get there.

Portland has long been a resettlement city for immigrants and refugees, many from Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, though there has been a more recent increase in people fleeing social unrest in Angola and Haiti. More Ukrainian refugees are expected in the coming weeks.

Jalali pointed out for many, the idea of not voting is a foreign concept.

"That's very hard for some of us as immigrants to understand, why Americans are not participating in the elections in larger numbers?" Jalali remarked. "Because so many millions of non-Americans in different parts of the world are fighting to just have that right."

He added part of tonight's event will also focus on the misinformation and disinformation surrounding elections, to help alleviate any fears people may have on Election Day. By building their understanding of the democratic process, Jalali said he hopes some new Mainers will consider eventually running for office.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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