‘I waited 21 years for this moment’: How six first-time voters view the election

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And Justine Okello is feeling emotional about his chance to do something so many people around the world can’t: vote.

CNN spoke this month with naturalized US citizens in Georgia as they prepared to cast ballots in a US presidential election for the first time. They told us why voting matters to them, and what issues they’re weighing as they head to the polls. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Some of these immigrant voters have candidates they support. Others are still considering the options. All of them are ready for you to hear what they have to say.

He feels like he’s casting his vote for those who don’t have a voice

Carlos Garcia

Carlos Garcia, 40 • Rigger • Country of origin: Mexico

Once you actually get there and stand in front of the immigration officer and you raise that hand to pledge allegiance to the United States, it’s like — that’s why they call it a dream. Yes, it is a dream, because you can’t believe it. This is what you’ve been working for, so hard, for 21 years, and you’re there. You made it, but a lot of your friends didn’t. You just let out that big sound from deep inside your gut. You exhale.

I’ve been silent for 21 years, without any official representation. I couldn’t really come out of the shadows. And at this point, I’m ready to scream from the top of my lungs. I’m going to vote in person. I want to experience for the very first time that feeling, that emotion that I’m casting my vote. And I’m voting against my oppression. I waited 21 years for this moment. I can wait 21 hours in line to cast my vote. I don’t care what happens. Nobody’s going to stop me from voting.

Most of the people that I know, they can’t vote. And that’s why I feel like it’s crucial for me to cast my vote. I feel like it’s not just my vote, but I’m casting the vote for many of us, possibly hundreds, that they have no voice because they just can’t. And I understand the need to get out there and express ourselves and our frustration with the way the system works.

I was very scrutinized going through the immigration process. I think our elected officials need to be held to the same standards as they hold us. Going through the immigration process, moral character is one of the most important things. If you lie, it can disqualify you. Or if you get caught in a lie. Or because simply you forgot something. Or if your data is not accurate. That’s one of the reasons I’m voting against this President, because he has lied to the American people so much.

When I vote, I will be very proud, wearing an American flag mask my neighbor gave me as a present when I became a US citizen. They’re hardcore (Donald) Trump supporters. I will be wearing the same mask they gave me to vote against Trump.

In Afghanistan she didn’t think her vote would matter. Here she sees a chance for change

Khadija Barati

Khadija Barati, 43 • Banker • Country of origin: Afghanistan

I was a medic soldier in Afghanistan. It was risky. I joined with the American army. Even my family didn’t know. I just told them, “I’m working with the clinic.” Because it was dangerous. It was not easy to join, but I did it. I said, “I need to feel somewhere that I’m safe.” When I joined the American base, I felt I got power and I got respect as a woman. I could walk inside the base without any fear, because I knew our American advisers were behind us and they supported us.

When I left my homeland to come here for a better life and safety, I felt like I belonged to America. Here is my home now.

This is my first time voting in my whole life. I didn’t vote in Afghanistan, because I felt, this is pointless, it’s not going to count; they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But here I believe when you vote, you are going to make some changes, because I believe in justice.

I am still listening to the candidates. I’m not going to make any decision by rushing, because as a new citizen, I don’t want to just go by what my neighbors say or what my coworkers say or what the TV says or what other people tell me. I will be careful and listen to them. And I’m not going to only think about myself. I am a refugee. I’m not going to focus only on one thing. Being selfish, it’s not smart. We need to think about all citizens of the United States, what is going to benefit everybody.

I like certain things on both sides — what Trump says and what (Joe) Biden says. Trump, right now, he’s pushing people in my country — the government and the Taliban to sit together and talk, which has never happened before. I kind of like it. It’s not just thinking about destroying. It’s not just thinking, fight, fight, fight. And Biden said if he becomes president, he’s going to be more open to letting refugees come here. This is good. I like the way he wants to do that. Today America is a powerful country in the world because of the diversity of its people, because of all the good people who come to America.

I really want to be careful with my vote. I’m going to listen to my heart and brain and think this over. What they say is important and, of course, what they do.

He sees voting as an act of healing

Justine Okello

Justine Okello, 35 • Program manager • Country of origin: Uganda

Democracy is something to be cherished. And true democracy is actually where people are taken seriously — where people’s voices do matter.

Being a new voter in this country, it is definitely a very emotional feeling. Being able to cast your vote is something that a lot of people around this world are not able to do. The people I serve are refugees, people fleeing countries because their nation is not leading, their nation is not taking care of them. And their voices are not really mattering. Even if they go out and vote, nothing really matters.

So being in a country where democracy is the pinnacle of serving the people, I really feel proud to be a Ugandan American, a citizen of this country, whose voice does matter.

It’s my first time voting. I was here for the last presidential election, and that was a very tough situation to witness. I couldn’t vote, I wasn’t a citizen. Now I can actually go out and participate in that civic duty. It feels really good. And I’m excited for it.

I’m feeling a sense of hope, hoping that the country can heal from a lot of the pain that it’s been going through. Because when people go out and cast their vote, they’re actually unburdening a lot of that pain, and putting it into the vote. And saying, “OK, this is my voice, and this is how I’m going to play my part, to make the change that I want.” I see that as a way of healing.

She says some in her senior community are scared to vote because of the pandemic

Jeum Ran Son

Jeum Ran Son, 84 • Retired housewife • Country of origin: South Korea

The first impression I have about the election in the United States is it’s very difficult, not just because of the language, but having to register, having to find my own polling location. It just seems like the elections in the United States are very difficult to do. I am getting help and I am getting a Korean interpreter at the polls. I will be going to vote in person. Because this is my first time voting for president, I wanted to have that experience.

Personally, I did want to vote for Trump. But I’m still learning more about it. Hopefully I’ll be able to decide when I get to the polls. I haven’t figured everything out. Thinking about the future, not just for myself but for my kids and future generations, I want them to get more help. There were a lot of benefits that happened to me personally when Trump became president, so that’s why I’m leaning towards him. But I just want somebody who can make the lives of everyone better.

There’s a lot of people suffering, especially with Covid-19 happening. I live in senior apartments. I see the effects on my neighbors, my friends and their children. I continue to hear and see their family members suffering. I also see many church members who are losing jobs. They’re having really hard times making ends meet, or even getting basic food and supplies.

And before, there were a lot of gatherings and opportunities to go out. Now that the pandemic hit, the senior centers have closed down. It’s difficult and I can feel that. It seems to have an effect on my friends as well. They have less energy.

The election is a topic of conversation that comes up a lot. There are people who are enthusiastic, who are getting ready to vote. And there are people who are turned off and not interested in the election process, not interested in the election itself. A lot of them, because they are seniors, because of their health issues, they’re hesitant, or not as willing to go and vote in person. I talk to them and tell them, it’s not just for us. It’s about future generations.

She feels like Latinos are forgotten

Paola Jesse

Paola Jesse, 42 • Paralegal • Country of origin: Guatemala

After I received my citizenship certificate, one of the first things I did was register to vote. I see the news and I see what’s going on and I work with immigrants, so I know the reality of what’s going on in the country and in the world. And I said, I need to try to make a difference somehow besides my work.

For me the issues are discrimination, equal opportunities and health insurance. I see this segregation that is going on. It includes White people and African Americans. But sometimes I feel like Latinos are forgotten, like we’re in the middle, and it feels like no one cares. Latinos need to speak and say what we think and make our voice count. We work hard and we pay taxes and we need to have the same opportunities that the rest of the people have that were born here. As long as we are working hard, I believe that we deserve them, and that’s why it’s important for me to vote.

It’s not that Biden is my ideal candidate, but I cannot give my vote to Trump. He goes against all my values and beliefs. Every day I feel like it’s worse, the things he says, the way he talks about people and humiliates them and insults them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with them, you don’t need to insult people. You always have to respect them.

I see all these fights on TV between the people that are supposed to be an example for us in government and take care of us. It seems like they don’t care about the people that really work and pay their salary. The Democrats don’t want to pay for something and then the Republicans say yes, or the other way. They fight. And in my mind, it’s like, why? They should care about the people and not about their egos, and who says no first and who’s trying to get the other one mad. They only care about their fight and who wins. And in the end the people are paying the consequences.

I’m really grateful to this country and I feel safe here. I know no country’s perfect. And I’m really grateful to the US, but also I know it can improve. And sometimes it’s disappointing to see all these fights and at the end, nothing happens. With this election, I’m hopeful, but at the same time, I’m scared.

He’s only been a US citizen for a few weeks, but he’s felt like one for decades

Melchor Salcedo Lara

Melchor Salcedo Lara, 54 • Gardener • Country of origin: Mexico

I’ve been here for 31 years. I’ve lived here more than in Mexico. I already felt like an American citizen. But I had to finish my journey.

I didn’t have any idea how to start the citizenship process, though, what the steps were. Then they were offering free classes at the Latin American Association and I realized I had to take this chance. I have an American friend who really helped me get all my documents together and do it.

I became a US citizen in September. Now I have to vote, because I have the right and the privilege of this great country — my country. I love this country. I feel like I’m part of this country. And I would like to be part of the change in this country.

There are some things I understand about Republicans, but I don’t understand Donald Trump. So I think Democrats are my choice, and supporting people of color, because in the end, I am also a person of color.

I have seen racism, people telling you, “Go back to your country.” This is my country. Thanks to Donald Trump there have been a lot of attacks against Latinos. He has created a hatred that has spread across the country. And this has affected me.

Still I am 100% confident that this is a good country to live in — a great country. And it is going to keep being that. I’m going to go vote in a group with my friends. I’ll be wearing three masks to protect those around me. Masks are important — this isn’t about political parties; this is about human beings. All Americans should be united to fight the pandemic and make this country greater.

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