Iraqi Refugee Votes in First US Presidential Election in Phoenix

Bilal Alobaidi holding his ballot in front of mailboxes

By Jessica Swarner

October 23, 2020

“I feel like I had power when I was using my pen and selecting candidates I believe in.” 

Bilal Alobaidi, a Phoenix housing coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, remembers what his ballot looked like in Iraq in the early 2000s—one name, Saddam Hussein, and “yes” or “no.” 

And even then, his vote wasn’t really a choice.

“It was awful because you have no options,” Alobaidi said. “You have to go with the “yes,” because otherwise you will face trouble.” 

After the US government captured Hussein, Alobaidi said things in his country didn’t get better. 

“After 2003, there were elections,” he said, “but unfortunately, a lot of corruption was in the government. “

He said the public couldn’t track their ballots or trust that the final results were accurate. 

A new beginning

Alobaidi came to the US as a refugee in late 2013. While he was able to get a job and exercise other rights, the one thing he couldn’t do was vote. 

But now, after his citizenship ceremony last December, this fall will be the first US presidential election he can participate in. 

group shot with Bilal at center
Photo courtesy of Danielle Luna

“I feel that I became a member of the society, that I can participate, or practice my right to vote, with my fellow Americans in order to shape our country’s future,” he said. 

Alobaidi requested an early ballot so he could take time to research candidates, and he has already mailed it in.

“I feel like I had power when I was using my pen and selecting candidates I believe in,” he said. “And I believe every vote matters, so I believe my vote will count and my voice will be heard.” 

Important issues

Alobaidi’s first US presidential election is also what many are calling the most important election in the country’s history. 

He said he can feel a lot of the division in the public he felt in Iraq. 

“The major issue right now is COVID and how a lot of people lost their lives and their job, and we need leadership to contain this issue and solve it as soon as possible,” he said. 

Alobaidi said immigration is also at the top of his mind, along with climate change and health care.

“When I was reading about American history during the test that I took … I found this country was built by immigrants and refugees. We should allow refugees and immigrants to keep coming to the United States,” he said. 

Bilal holding American flag
Photo by Danielle Luna

Alobaidi said he has been encouraging others in his circle who are hesitant to vote.  

“It’s really a wonderful feeling when you’re practicing the ultimate right,” he said.

MORE: These Young Arizona Immigrants Can’t Vote. But They’re Helping Others Do So This Fall.


  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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