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Politics & Government

Ex-Refugee, Now U.S. Citizen, Takes Voting Right Very Seriously

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now have the story of one refugee. He lives in Ohio. He's now a U.S. citizen. And this Tuesday he'll be casting a vote for the very first time. M.L. Schultze from member station WKSU reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Please raise your right hand.

M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Two things are a constant at naturalization ceremonies, lots of pictures, and lots of reminders that with citizenship comes responsibility, the responsibility to vote. Mahananda Luitel takes that responsibility seriously. He and his wife became citizens last April. They were born in Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and forced with about 100,000 others into refugee camps in Nepal. 10 years ago with little of the attention now swirling around other groups of refugees the Bush administration opened the U.S. borders to about 60,000 of them.

MAHANANDA LUITEL: We were looking for a durable solution to life for our sustenance, for the better life of our children and the U.S. government becomes so willing, so acceptable, so generous.

SCHULTZE: After medical, security and other screening the Luitel's expecting their second child headed for Texas in 2009, then moved north, where a large Bhutanese Napeli population has settled in and around Akron. Now, these refugees are learning just what it means to be a voter in the key swing state of Ohio. As a political refugee, Mahananda says voters should insist that country comes before party. He's particularly intrigued by Hillary Clinton.

LUITEL: A great nation like America would give an example to the rest of the world that Americans are not biased. They would give opportunity even to women.

SCHULTZE: And, still trying to make up his mind, he sat down to watch one of the most recent GOP debates with his 13-year-old son, Anuj.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: This little guy has lied so much.

SCHULTZE: The Luitel's have just moved into a new house so the Internet connection was spotty. And that may be a good thing. It cut out briefly just about the time Donald Trump and Marco Rubio got into a debate about the size of body parts. But Mahananda and Anuj heard plenty of the rest, including a debate over immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I'm going to build a wall. I'm the one that wants the wall.

SCHULTZE: Anuj looked up from his iPad, quizzical.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: There's always negotiation.

ANUJ: If you are trying to get Mexico to build wall, that's like me try to get my brother to give me the iPad when we just came home from school. He's not going to do it unless I convince him saying he can use my laptop. So he will have to negotiate. He doesn't seem very good at negotiating from the debate.

SCHULTZE: Mahananda says he would have no heart if he didn't think about the fate of other refugees and immigrants. But he's also worried about national security, the economy and education. And as a man of peace he says he worries about guns on the streets. But for Mahananda Luitel the American election is not just for Americans. It's an example for the rest of the world. And that's where he hesitates over the nature of the current political debate. He says it's all tone over substance.

LUITEL: It pleases our ears when we hear who wears what sort of pants and who makes what sort of personal comments but let there be a serious debate on the issues.

SCHULTZE: A recent Pew Center study shows naturalized citizens are more likely to vote than the U.S. population overall. One reason may be the process, the classes, the tests, the ceremonies. Mahananda Luitel says he'll vote simply because he is now a very responsible member of this nation. How he'll vote though, he hasn't yet decided. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Shultze in Akron, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.