'That's Me. Trump's Banning Me.': What Motivates Refugees to Run for Office in America

Some want to take on the president's politics. Others simply hope to give back to the communities that have become home.
by | December 27, 2017
In this recently released campaign video, Peter Lumaj, a political refugee from Albania, talks about why he's running for governor in Connecticut. (YouTube/Lumaj for Connecticut campaign)

When he was 20 years old, Peter Lumaj and three of his brothers escaped from the closed Communist society of Albania. They left behind seven other siblings and their parents, all of whom were placed in an internment camp as a result. Their father died there.

Not speaking any English upon his arrival in the United States, Lumaj got a job at a Burger King. Eventually, he made his way through college and law school and was the Republican candidate for Connecticut secretary of state in 2014. Now, he's running for governor.

"I'm living the American dream, and I want to make sure I can serve the community," Lumaj says. "I went away from socialism. It has failed everywhere that it's been tried. I don't want to see my kids grow up in a socialistic society."

Not all refugee candidates share Lumaj's politics, but many express similar motivations when they run for office.

"Refugees have a very hard pathway toward U.S. citizenship," says Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "When that goal has been attained, running for office is one of the best ways to pay back the country and contribute."

Refugees running for office are not a new phenomenon. Vera Katz, a former Portland, Ore., mayor who died on Dec. 11, was the child of Russian emigres who fled Nazi Germany when she was a child.

“My mom was the embodiment of the American dream: coming with nothing and making life better not just for herself but for the countless others she touched,” said her son, Jesse Katz, upon her death.

Ilhan Omar, who was elected as the nation's first Somali-American state legislator in 2016, landed on the cover of Time in September. Fue Lee, her colleague and classmate in the Minnesota House, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

McCaw says some refugees running for office this year and next may have a new source of inspiration: the desire to answer attacks on immigrants and refugees by President Trump.

After winning a Virginia House race in November, Kathy Tran, a refugee, tweeted that the election results represented a "rejection of racism, misogyny, xenophobia & hate."

During the presidential campaign, Trump referred to a Syrian refugee resettlement program as "a great Trojan horse" that would bring future terrorists into the country. Once in office, Trump imposed a 120-day moratorium on refugee admissions. The administration lifted the freeze in September, announcing it would allow in 45,000 more carefully vetted refugees in the coming year, the lowest total in decades.

"The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern," a senior U.S. government official told reporters in September.

Zak Idan, who came to America as a refugee from Somalia when he was 11, was motivated to run for office by Trump's ban on travel from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

"I realized, 'That's me. Trump's banning me,'" Idan told the Seattle Times. "It was in that moment I saw I needed to put myself out there."

In November, Idan became the first Somali elected official in Washington state, winning a seat on the Tukwila City Council.

Not all former refugee candidates are motivated by politics -- or national politics, at any rate.

Wilmot Collins, a former refugee from Liberia who won election as mayor of Helena, Mont., in November, said his harrowing life story may have drawn national media attention, but it wasn't an issue in his race. Mayor Jim Smith, whom Collins unseated, noted during the campaign that local governments have little to no say over refugee policy.

“Voters and citizens elected me on issues pertaining to Helena,” Collins told the Helena Independent Record. “I’ll be a trumpet for my community.”

In other words, Collins ran to give something back.

"Some refugees running for office are looking to respond to those local issues to make their communities the best places possible for their families," McCaw says.