Muslim refugee families mobilize to defeat Donald Trump in Arizona

“The same communities he is attacking are the same communities making sure he won’t get into office.”

Hayat Mohamed, the daughter of a Ethiopian refugee, is getting the vote out in Phoenix to defeat Donald Trump. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Hayat Mohamed, the daughter of a Ethiopian refugee, is getting the vote out in Phoenix to defeat Donald Trump. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

PHOENIX, ARIZONA — Donald Trump is wrapping up his presidential campaign the way he kicked it off: casting immigrants and refugees as a threat to the homeland.

“Large numbers of Somali refugees [are] coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” Trump warned a crowd in Minneapolis on Sunday. “Some of them [are] joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.”

As he spoke, dozens of children of Somali and Ethiopian refugees were knocking on doors in the new battleground state of Arizona, mobilizing voters to defeat Trump in Tuesday’s presidential election.

“I can’t vote yet, but I’m making sure people around me are registered to vote and are voting for Hillary,” said Hayat Mohamed, a 16-year-old student at Phoenix’s North High School volunteering with the group Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) Action. “I’m going door to door making sure everyone knows that we are not okay with Trump being president.”

Mohamed is a member of a group of about 40 teens — the children of Somali, Kenyan, and Ethiopian refugees — who call themselves “Team Africa.” Team Africa joined forces this year with dozens more Latino high school students in Phoenix to register tens of thousands of new voters of color and convince them to cast their ballots against Trump on Tuesday.

For months, Mohamed and her friends have spent every day after school and every weekend working to turn out voters against the man who has portrayed their families as economically burdensome and dangerous.

“Donald Trump describes us as coming in and taking all the jobs, ruining the economy, being terrorists or whatever,” she said, adjusting her pink hijab and grimacing. “But we’re just trying to have a better life. This nation was built off of immigrants.”

Arizona is a major center for refugee resettlement, taking in nearly 75,000 people from all over the world since 1978. The state has more refugees per capita than nearly any other.

More than 6,400 of these people hail from Somalia, and they hear Donald Trump’s derisive words about their community loud and clear.

Ibado Mahmud, a Somali refugee who is now a citizen, outside the home she purchased in Phoenix. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Ibado Mahmud, a Somali refugee who is now a citizen, outside the home she purchased in Phoenix. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

“I was personally hurt by what he said,” 16-year-old Faisa Ahmed told ThinkProgress. “He’s saying I’m a terrorist and I don’t even belong here, when I belong just as much as his kids or anyone else here.”

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, Ahmed came to the U.S. with her Somalian parents as refugees when she was 8 years old. For the last few months, she has been working to rally her community against Trump, using her personal experience to address the myths he is spreading about refugees.

“I want to share my own story, not have him telling people things that aren’t true about us,” she said.

“I belong just as much as his kids or anyone else here.”

The International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement program in Phoenix, reports that refugees have opened 151 new businesses, converted eight corner stores to sell locally grown produce in food deserts, managed three community gardens, opened 32 certified daycare centers, bought 336 homes, and added $40 million to the local economy.

All refugees go through many months or years of intense vetting and background checks, including fingerprints and retinal eye scans, submitting documents like birth certificates, school report cards, and driver’s licenses, and multiple rounds of interviews.

Yet Donald Trump’s tales of suspicious refugees pouring into the country found a receptive audience in Arizona, where local Republican lawmakers have been pushing similar stories. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill to ban the settlement of refugees, and its authors warned that refugees would commit acts of terrorism or bring diseases into the country. Another bill proposed holding charities that resettle refugees legally liable if those refugees commit any crimes.

These attitudes are perplexing to teenagers like Yonas Kahsai, whose mother fled the war in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp for two years before the United Nations helped the family settle in the United States in 1993.

“Refugees are coming from situations you wouldn’t be able to comprehend,” he told ThinkProgress. “We’re coming from situations that were out of our hands and we’re trying to make the best out of it. We are honest people who want freedom and a better life. We’re just trying to follow the American Dream.”

Kahsai’s mother, Ibado Mahmud, works at the Phoenix airport selling sandwiches and bottled water. Her shift begins every morning at 3:30 a.m. Her dark brown skin and colorful hijab have made her a target for discrimination, and she says customers this year have demanded to know if all Muslims are violent, if she supports terrorism, and — most puzzlingly — if she’s a Somali pirate.

“I just came here for a better life,” she said, shaking her head. “People are forcing me to speak for things I don’t know anything about.”

When Donald Trump announced his bid for president last year with a speech calling immigrants criminals and rapists, her 17-year-old son Yonas was moved to act.

“When he uttered those words, I was in shock,” he said. “I thought, you’re lying. You’re spewing out these words of hate against good people. It motivated me to knock on doors and talk to more voters to make sure he won’t win.”

Kahsai has talked to hundreds of voters this year, specifically targeting registered Democrats with low turnout rates. He says the result has been incredibly fulfilling. “A lot of people tell me, ‘I wouldn’t have voted if you hadn’t come.’ Or, ‘I wouldn’t have known how to vote if you hadn’t come.’”

“He is motivating us to bring him down.”

Despite Kahsai and hundreds of other volunteers registering a record number of new voters of color this year, and pushing a record number of them to cast their ballots early, Donald Trump is still expected to carry the state by a narrow margin. Kahsai said knowing that so many people in his own community support the GOP nominee “hurts a little bit,” while Mohamed said it was “very disgusting.”

“But more and more, as I talk to voters and get them to turn out, I feel there are more of us than them. There are more people who actually care,” Kahsai said. “The same communities he is attacking are the same communities making sure he won’t get into office. He is motivating us to bring him down.”

Seventeen-year-old Kahsai is himself just one year away from being able to vote, which he jokingly called a “travesty.” But his mother, who became a citizen in 2011, already cast her ballot by mail for Hillary Clinton.

“She’s knows how to be a leader,” she said of Clinton. “She knows how to represent us. [Trump] discriminates against who I am, what I believe. I don’t know how I couldn’t live here if he won.”