Learn more about running for office
We’ve worked with refugee and immigrant candidates around the country, regardless of where they’re located and the level of office they’re running for. Interested in running for city council in Washington or Congress in Rhode Island? We’ll be there! Reach out today to let us know where you’re running and how we can support.
This is a common question among refugees, immigrants, and candidates of color who are running for office for the first time. In political spaces you hear all the time that “name recognition matters”, but you also worry that your voters won’t take the time to learn your name. Maybe people have been saying your name wrong your entire life already. How have other candidates dealt with this issue?
In Massachusetts, Tram Nguyen (18th-Essex), considered running on a different name before she decided that she owed it to herself, her family, and her culture to use her own name and teach people along the way. In a blog post about choosing to embrace her own name, she explains, “a name is the first thing people notice, use, ask for when dealing with each other. A name that is easy to pronounce creates trust and familiarity, it’s the first step to making someone feel like they know you, like you, and can trust you.” When she decided to run, she embraced her Vietnamese name that had previously been taken from her. “The benefit of a full white American name is not worth the cost of burying the heritage of my Vietnamese surname.” While not easy, Nguyen often corrects new people on how to say her name, especially on the campaign trail, and it is a choice she is glad she made.
“Can you say trombone? It’s kinda like that: “Trom.” N-gu-yen. Nu-gen. N-guy-en. You can say “Win”. Win? Yes, that’s good enough.”
In Cincinnati, Ohio, Aftab Purval’s party told him to change his name for his run for city Mayor in 2022. In an interview with Politico, Purval told reporter Michael Kruse, “When I first started running … people, Democrats, told me I had to change my name, to Adam or to Al — because a guy named Aftab’s never gonna win.” From childhood, Purval worried that his name would stand in the way of his chances to win any elected position, let alone Mayor of his city, but in 2022, he did not succumb to this pressure to erase his Tibetan and Indian heritage. While keeping his birth-given name and embracing his family history, Purval was elected mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio in 2022. He leaned into his story, his heritage, and he built strong, lasting relationships with leaders around the State who supported his election bid and campaigned on his behalf. Now, people chant his name. “Aftab, Aftab, Aftab!”
And in Georgia, Bee Nguyen made her campaign slogan “Win with Nguyen” (Nguyen pronounced like ‘win’) to encourage voters to remember how to say her name correctly. Her campaign team made t-shirts and signs and passed them out everywhere they went. It might seem simple, but it became an effective campaigning tool for Nguyen and her team.
There is no one way to help voters learn to say your name correctly and remember who you are. But there are a lot of other candidates and community members who are dedicated to doing it right. You’re not alone! And you deserve to have people chanting your name during your campaign and calling you by your name when you’re an elected representative.
Depending on the office you’re seeking, your community of neighbors voting for you could be as small as a few hundred or as large as a few hundred thousand. Meeting your neighbors in your district and talking to voters can feel daunting! But it can also be hard to see how voters will get to know you well enough to vote for you.
First, don’t worry! Engaged voters will seek you out and will be excited to meet you. But what about meeting all the other voters who aren’t as engaged but still need to vote for you?
Just ask Nabeela Syed, the 23 year-old Illinois state representative who flipped the 51st district. In 2022, Syed made it a goal during her campaign to get to know her neighbors by knocking on all their doors. She personally knocked on over 20,000 doors in her district over the course of her campaign, taking selfies with her neighbors and sharing stories about the experiences that connected them. And her family and friends volunteered as well. All together, her campaign knocked 55,000 doors in her district during her campaign.
Syed’s social media accounts are full of stories from the conversations she and her team had with their neighbors everyday of her campaign. “We saw people that were lifelong Republicans, and my dad showed up at their doorstep…Seeing him there made them decide to vote for me,” Syed shared in an interview.
Through her efforts, Nabeela Syed was able to get to know the members of her community personally and gain their support in her ultimately successful election. She is now a sitting member of the Illinois House of Representatives.
Meeting voters one-on-one is time consuming, but an excellent way to build relationships and show your neighbors- your voters- that you are someone they can trust if you’re elected. You don’t have to just knock on their doors either; you can also call people, text them, and meet them at community events. But however you do it, building relationships is essential, because at the end of the day, politics is personal and people will be grateful to get to know you personally.
Definitely! Your experience from a different field is so essential to government- your unique understanding of teaching, nursing, grocery clerking, uber driving, etc. will be invaluable in informing policy at whatever level of government you choose to run for.
Dr. Michelle Au, a Georgia State Representative, came into politics with a medical background. “I never imagined myself running for office. Never. Really the concept of being involved in politics as anything more than a spectator had not crossed my mind until after the election in 2016, or more precisely, the morning of November 9, 2016,” she explained in an interview in 2021. “I suspect that was a galvanizing moment for many people, but on that morning, I realized that whatever I was doing in my regular work, it clearly wasn’t enough.”
Dr. Au began to realize that not only was there a role for her experience in the public health field to inform policy, she recognized she also had a responsibility to take her expertise and contribute to the political process. “Once I realized that the kind of work I sought to do flowed through the legislature, it became clearer that running for office was a way to accomplish those goals.”
So, in 2020, Dr. Au launched her campaign for Georgia State Senate. She quickly realized just how much her community was excited to support her. “Communities are hungry for representation that reflects the full diversity of the human experience. The value that each of us brings—with our different backgrounds, different experiences—matters more than we appreciate.”
In 2022, Dr. Au ran for Georgia State House, after her Senate district was redrawn and would have given the seat to her republican opponent. She serves today in a dual role as both a representative and a Doctor.
While it may seem daunting to run for office when coming from an underrepresented community, don’t let it stop you! Change starts with each of us, and over the last few years, numerous individuals from underrepresented communities have faced huge fights to win elections and have successfully overcome the challenges with the help of a variety of sources. There are people who are excited to support your campaign, and while it can be challenging to find them, efforts are being made to make it easier everyday.
Just in 2018, Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District showed that refugees, immigrants, and Muslim women of color can and should run for congress. Born in Somalia, Rep. Omar and her family fled the country’s civil war when she was still young. She and her family then spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States in the 1990s.
Rep. Omar did not have many individuals to look up to in the political sphere. Yet, with the support of her family and community, Rep. Omar was able to break barriers; she not only became the first African refugee to become a Member of Congress, but also the first woman of color to represent Minnesota and one of the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress.
In a 2018 interview with the Guardian, Rep. Omar expressed the personal significance of representing many firsts, “I would have loved to have heard a story like mine. I could have used it as an inspiration to get by. The lesson is to be hopeful, to dream and to aspire for more.”
Rep. Omar’s story of running and winning shows that it is possible to achieve what may seem impossible. With the support of your community and resources from organizations such as Voice for Refuge, you too can run for office. Check out our running for office toolkits and panel discussion with other candidates with lived refugee and immigrant experience.
Unfortunately, due to the continuing presence of systematic oppression and racial prejudice in our society, running for office as a candidate of color, as a refugee or immigrant, or as someone from an underrepresented religion can come with the risk of racist and disrespectful remarks and actions from others.
In Georgia, Ruwa Romman, an immigrant from Jordan and the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives, was accused of having ties to terrorism in an official campaign mailer sent by a group opposed to her candidacy. Rep. Romman did not let this racist behavior stop her from fighting for the issues she cares about. She explained in a local podcast interview that, “it’s one of those things where, unfortunately, my threshold is so high.” From facing comments and misunderstandings all her life, Romman said that responding to the mailer just became extra to-do, but nothing new.
While Romman’s experience of being accused of ties to terrorism is not a common experience, many candidates from underrepresented communities also face online or in-person vitriol.
Rep. Ilhan Omar has also faced threats, including xenophobic lies tweeted by the former president of the United States. Rep. Omar believes that it is crucial to address these actions and use them as a catalyst for change, “…we cannot simply bottle up our pain. We cannot ignore the double standards women and people of color face as elected officials…We have a responsibility to speak our truths, to call out double standards where we see them, so that others can see our pain.”
“For years, women of color were told not to talk about the hate and the attacks. Addressing sexism or racism will only alienate voters, we are told,” Rep. Omar explained, “we cannot afford to be silent about systems of oppression. We can’t eradicate our problems unless we put ourselves in the shoes of others and craft solutions that work for all.”
As a candidate from an underrepresented background, you may face increased responsibility to call out systems of oppression and to call on your community and party to join you in dismantling barriers and pushing back on unacceptable behavior. We’re all working for a system where the responsibility of this work does not solely sit on the shoulders of those most impacted, so if you’re feeling unsupported, reach out and ask your community and political party leadership to step up.
Though less talked about, many candidates also seek out mental health professionals for the duration of their campaign and work as an elected official. If you or someone you know is facing threats of harm or considering self harm, please seek appropriate help immediately.
Yes, you really can. And we can’t wait cheer you on!
If you care about refugee representation, holding elected leaders accountable to their promises, and ensuring that more people from your community turn out to vote in critical elections, join us!