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Refugees Work To Overcome Language Barrier At Ballot Box

Esther Honig
During early voting, Bhutanese refugees who spoke English shuttled other members of their community to the polls to help them vote.

Columbus is home to a large, and growing, refugee population. But as these voters head to the polls this presidential election they could find language barriers. Ballots, voter registration and candidate information are rarely available in foreign languages like Somali and Nepalese. 

Despite the obstacles, these citizens are working hard to make their voices heard. 

A Big Moment

At his home in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Bhuwan Pyakurel is doing something he does most evenings after work: sitting on his living room floor and discussing the upcoming election with his 93-year-old father, Gana.

Originally from the small south Asian nation of Bhutan, for Pyakurel and his father this is a defining step in their experience as U.S. citizens.

“It’s really a big happy moment for us,” Gana says, in Nepalese.

For the majority of Bhutanese refugees, including Pyakurel’s dad, this is the first time any of them have voted for the leader of their country.  

In their evening conversations, Pyakurel says they pick apart issues, everything from education to healthcare. But there's one topic that's of primary concern.  

"I’m hearing a certain political candidate telling that refugees are bad people,” Pyakurel says. “That certain immigrants are the ones committing crimes in this county."

Pyakurel says the rhetoric from Donald Trump and some of his supporters is familiar for the Bhutanese, who have faced discrimination in the past.

In the early 1990s, the Bhutan government drove out thousands of ethnic minorities, like Pyakurel and his family. Before they were granted asylum to the U.S., the family spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.

He says they fear a lot is at stake this election.

“So fearful that maybe again we will be the victim of another hatred,” Pyakurel says.

Credit Esther Honig
Bhuwan Pyakurel and his father Gana Pyakurel sit at their home in the suburbs of Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

Only In English

That’s why for Pyakurel voting is important. But if you're not a fluent English speaker, it's surprisingly difficult.

“Everybody says your vote matters; your voice will be heard. Every vote counts,” he says. “But everything is in English.”

Many refugees, especially older generations like Pyakurel's dad, are still learning English. But in Franklin County, voter registration forms aren’t provided in any foreign languages.

Pyakurel has taken it upon himself to hold information sessions in Bhutanese at dozens of homes throughout his community. He explains why voting's important and how to register, and he shares information about the candidates that's not available in his language.

"This candidate is talking about these things, about our issues...this candidate is talking about these things about our issues, so make your own opinion,” Pyakurel says as an example.

Federal law requires local officials to provide ballots in a foreign language, but only for people who speak Spanish, Native American and some Asian languages, and that's only if the local population exceeds 10,000.

The Ohio ACLU's Mike Brickner says the law does not apply to refugees from countries like Somalia and Nepal.   

"We may not see the law necessarily catching up with those new immigrants, and there may be a gap in coverage there," Brickner says.

The federal government estimates there are now more than 10,000 people of Somali heritage in Franklin County and more than 6,000 Bhutanese refugees. 

Fixing The Gaps

Brickner says that while it's not possible to track voter turnout from these communities, they know that language barriers have a big effect on who votes.     

“Oftentimes, when we see people get confused, they will give up and not cast a ballot at all,” Brickner says.  

The Franklin County Board of Elections does provide interpreters in neighborhoods with a high level of Spanish- or Somali-speaking residents. But Board of Elections officials say updated census information might compel them to provide more services for non-English speakers.

During early voting, Pyakurel has been shuttling Bhutanese voters from their homes to the polls. Anyone who speaks English, like Dil Dhakal, is recruited to interpret for those who don't.

"Oh yeah, I helped three people other than me how to use the machines," Dhakal says.

Dhakal says he was able to convince his neighbors and family members to come vote simply because he offered to interpret. 

By the time he was finally able to cast his own ballot, Pyakurel has already helped a dozen people through the process.

So how did it feel to vote for the first time?

"Super excited!” Pyakurel says. “Very happy!"

Pyakurel says he looks forward to the outcome of this election, and the election four years from now, when hopefully a member from the refugee community will run for local office.