Rallying the Afghan Vote in Fremont

By Francesca Segre

Most Afghan-Americans came here as refugees — fleeing war, invasions and political repression. Yet many don’t exercise their right to vote in U.S. elections. The nonprofit group The Afghan Coalition is trying to change that dynamic, and they’re rallying voters in the heart of California’s Afghan population — Fremont.

Francesca Segre/KQED

The group organized a forum recently for Afghan-American voters to meet the four candidates running for mayor of the city. At the event, candidates fielded questions about immigration and how to combat Islamophobia. Aziz Akbari, an 18-year-old Muslim and one of the mayoral candidates, tried to warm up the crowd by introducing himself in Farsi. But the candidates know it’s complicated to encourage Afghan voter turnout.

Many Afghans are reluctant to vote because they were never given a chance to in their homeland. “In Afghanistan it was a completely different system,” says Afghan Coalition Executive Director Rona Popal. “That’s why they don’t vote. They feel like whatever government decides they decide. It is not going to be up to my vote. That really needs to be changed. People really need to understand that their vote counts, their vote is important and their decision is very important.”

Afghan Americans often have an ingrained assumption that balloting and the government are corrupt. Mohammad Tariq Mehdavi, an Afghan refugee who lives in nearby Hayward, says people in Afghanistan these days are often paid for their votes.

“They’re putting 50 people in one truck or one bus, and they’re taking them from a village to the voting place, and they’re telling them, ‘OK, put your vote here.’ It’s like this. There is not free choice,” Mehdavi says. “People are poor and they are taking the money and going and voting for the guy.”

Cracking suspicions about corrupt governments and convincing Afghan Americans that their vote counts isn’t easy, especially when some don’t understand English well. But Golam Jelani says he loves to vote.

Many Afghans are reluctant to vote because they were never given a chance to in their homeland.

“I know how important it is to be able to speak your feeling and your mind and to have them put it in action,” he says. Jelani recalls his harrowing escape from political repression in Afghanistan following the Russian invasion in the early ’80s.

“I personally walked for five days and five nights with no food and no maps. And no money and no direction, and we don’t know what to do. So struggle after struggle.” He says he’s most concerned about education; other voters at the forum worry about safety and health care.

The Afghan Coalition is also creating shows on Afghan satellite TV about how to vote, and YouTube videos in Farsi explaining the California ballot initiatives. Yet for all the effort, old traditions can be hard to break.

At the popular De Afghanan restaurant in a neighborhood dubbed “Little Kabul,” some people are reluctant to discuss voting. But one woman, Zakia, who preferred not to give her last name, remembers being imprisoned as a teenager in Afghanistan for protesting the Soviet invasion. These days, Zakia says she’s focused on raising her three children, and she doesn’t always vote.

“I don’t have that much information about the person I’m voting for,” Zakia says. “But my husband always does. Just one member of the family votes. I guess. I don’t vote personally myself.”

Fifteen-year-old Mohammad Mojaddidi overhears the conversation and wants to participate. He was born in Fremont to Afghan parents. He’s still too young to vote, but he can’t imagine missing the chance to cast his ballot.

“If you don’t vote, it’s like you’re wasting an opportunity of something that could really change,” Mojaddidi says. “You never know, one vote could change a whole country.”

He says if his elders would just cast one vote, they might feel more a part of American society.