New American casts first vote days after swearing-in ceremony
Published: 01-24-2024 4:49 PM
Modified: 01-25-2024 6:04 PM
To vote in his first United States election, Kayitani Ndutiye put on his Patriots football shirt and a blazer and attached a gold American flag pin to the lapel.
“Proud to be an American” it read.
Eighteen months ago, he sat in a classroom at Overcomers Refugee Services, practicing the spelling of red, white and blue and learning why 50 stars and 13 stripes made up the country’s flag as he studied for the 100-question naturalization test.
He passed in November and on Friday, he was sworn in as a United States citizen at the Warren B. Rudman United States Courthouse in Concord, just days before the New Hampshire primary.
On Tuesday, he went down to the Green Street Community Center in Concord and requested a Democratic ballot, where he wrote in the name of President Joe Biden.
“I am so happy,” he said. “I am home.”
The path to citizenship for Ndutiye spanned a decade. He first arrived in New Hampshire on December 12, 2012 – with his wife and young children – after fleeing war in their home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a stop in Rwanda in between.
The family built a life in Concord. Ndutiye found work at HHP, the state’s largest pallet manufacturer in Henniker, and his six children ascended through the school district.
This week cemented a sentiment that Ndutiye has long known to be true – New Hampshire is his home. He now has a naturalization certificate to prove it and an “I voted” sticker to show off the new rights that come with his citizenship status.
To cast his vote, Ndutiye arrived at the polling place with Clement Kigugu, the director at Overcomers, who had given him a ride. It was the first of many trips Kigugu would make that day, serving as a chauffeur, translator and civics teacher for New American voters.
It is a role he’s taken on most elections but Tuesday’s primary presented a unique challenge: First, new voters need to register as a Democrat, Republican or undeclared. To cast a vote they’d have to pick one party’s ballot. And for those like Ndutiye, who chose Democrat, they wouldn’t see the president’s name listed. Voting for him meant writing his name in at the bottom. And yes, that’s spelled J-O-E B-I-D-E-N.
“This primary is a little bit confusing,” said Kigugu. “It’s hard to understand. When there are two people, like Biden and someone else, it is much easier for people to say ‘I’m going to vote for this one’.”
Sitting at a plastic table with foldout chairs, Kigugu walked Ndutiye through the process in Swahili, as he handed over his driver’s license and naturalization certificate and filled out a voter registration form.
Kigugu accompanied Ndutiye through each step of the process – with his registration verified, they collected a ballot from the tables sorted by last name and walked to the makeshift booth, with a white cardboard divider set up, before leaving Ndutiye to cast his vote solo.
It’s a moment of pride for Kigugu, too. He’s helped hundreds of New Americans resettle in Concord – providing an array of support and serving as a liaison to the greater community. In a sense, when his clients vote in their first election, it’s a culmination of these services into one grand finale.
Next, Ndutiye hopes his wife can pass the naturalization test as well. When he first started studying in August of 2022, he hoped it would be something they’d do together. But while his English was limited in the beginning – dependent on Swahili translations on flashcards of phrases to learn – his wife was less prepared. She’s now returned to school to improve her English before resuming the process.
And voting in Concord reminded him of casting ballots in the Congo, where no checklists, ballots or tabulation machines were used. He just wrote a name on a piece of paper and put it in a box.
Ndutiye stuck his “I voted” sticker opposite his American flag pin on his blazer. For a moment he paused, smiling – looking around at the polling site and the manilla folder that held his new naturalization papers.
The rest of his day carried on as usual – he was off to work for the afternoon shift. But his morning brought him to a halt for a second, taking in the democratic process of his new country.
“I feel very confident, he said.