At first, the scene at the Manchester field office for the Bernie Sanders campaign looked pretty typical: Volunteers milled around after a presentation from campaign higher-ups, fielding invitations to sign up for canvassing shifts from campaign staffers armed with clipboards.
But in one corner of the room, a smaller group huddled together, listening intently to field organizer Susmik Lama, who was delivering a parallel set of instructions for the final weeks of the campaign — in Nepali.
Lama's family belonged to an indigenous community in Nepal and moved to the United States when she was younger. She's fairly new to politics, but she’s been an integral part of the Sanders campaign’s get-out-the-vote strategy in New Hampshire, as a field organizer who specializes in outreach to the state’s immigrant and refugee communities.
“I never had any political background. I studied science,” she explained. "But the thing that I've learned as a pre-med student is to recognize people's socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, to have that conversation.”
While the pace of refugee resettlement has slowed in recent years, New Hampshire is still home to thousands of refugees and immigrants — including a large population hailing from Himalayan nations like Bhutan and Nepal.
Refugees and immigrants can vote in U.S. elections after applying for U.S. citizenship, but engaging with these communities has — until now — been an afterthought for many local campaigns.
Suraj Budathoki, a former Bhutanese refugee who now works for the Sanders campaign, has made it his mission to change that.
“The Democratic Party thinks that votes of immigrants and refugees are sure votes for them; that’s a mistake,” he said. “They don’t tend to go to those people. They think that they’re going to come to them, vote for them. But they never go to their community and talk to them.”
Budathoki is in charge of constituency outreach for the Sanders campaign in New Hampshire, which means that he helps the campaign connect with different groups of supporters — local party chairs and grassroots activists, but also leaders among the state’s immigrants and refugees.
He used to lead a local nonprofit that works with refugees from lots of different countries, and he was tapped to join the Sanders campaign in part because of his deep understanding of New Hampshire’s refugee communities. He’s been able to draw on those connections to help the Sanders campaign line up endorsements from influential leaders in not only the local Bhutanese community, but also the Rohingya community, Congolese community and more.
He also made sure the Sanders campaign recruited other people, like Lama, who could help facilitate campaign organizing across cultural and language barriers.
Budathoki and Lama said their engagement with the immigrants and refugees who are part of the Sanders campaign takes many forms. Sometimes, it’s meant taking extra time to help volunteers for whom English is a second language feel more comfortable knocking on doors or making phone calls to potential supporters. Other times, it’s meant translating campaign materials into another language so that everyone has the instructions they need to fully participate in the voting process.
When I signed up to be a translator for some of the documents we made [for the Iowa caucuses], that was the first time I had seen something in politics in Nepali,” Lama said.
While New Hampshire’s voting population is far less diverse than many other states, Budathoki says there are still thousands of potential voters who belong to its immigrant and refugee communities — and they shouldn’t be overlooked.
“When we leave someone behind, that undermines the value of democracy,” he said.
One of the Nepalese volunteers who’s stepped up to help the campaign in the final stretch of the primary is Bisnu Lama. He signed up for some volunteer shifts to knock on doors and get out the vote locally for the upcoming primary. But he’s also been doing a lot of his own organizing, outside of the campaign, through word of mouth.
“I have been talking to my friends, whoever I know. Not only Manchester, Nashua, Merrimack, but wherever Nepali is,” he said. “I have a lot of friends living in other states like California, Michigan, Washington DC, Seattle, New York.”
Susmik Lama, the campaign organizer, says the Nepalese community has stepped up in lots of ways: spreading the word on Facebook, and offering up their homes as volunteer headquarters. Her parents have also helped by pitching in with home-cooked meals. In a close primary like this one, every bit helps.