• Ben Derico

Arabic Voters in Fresno Lack Translated Materials

By Ben Derico & Sofie Kodner

Faihaa Kashak has been a U.S. citizen for twenty-three years, but on Friday she voted for the first time. Kashak, 65, immigrated from Syria to the U.S. in 1992 and was naturalized 5 years later. She always wanted to vote, but struggled to find voting resources in her dominant language, Arabic. This year, seated in her living room, her bilingual daughter Zena Chafi helped her translate a mail-in ballot.

“We got the chance to make our voices heard for the first time," Kashak told Chafi in Arabic as they walked together to drop off the completed ballot at the nearest polling place.

Kashak is not alone: Thousands of predominantly Arabic speakers across the state spend elections without comprehensible ballot materials. According to Census data, there aren’t enough Arabic speakers in any one Fresno voting precinct to amount to 3 percent of the population--a threshold determined by the California Voting Rights Act that mandates at what point translated election materials must be provided at an affected polling place.

But Chafi, who is also a community organizer at the Council on Arabic Islamic Relations Sacramento Valley/Central California (CAIR-SVCC), believes there are thousands more Arabic speakers in Fresno than the Census shows, and enough to qualify for translated materials. “It's just hard to get them counted,” she said.

Non-English speakers and residents relatively new to the U.S. are often among the hardest groups to reach for the Census count, at times because they are unfamiliar with the Census’ purpose or how the data is used. Chafi said the Arabic community in Fresno has been historically wary of sharing information with the Census, which results in underrepresentation and a lack of resources including translated voting materials.

For this reason, Chafi worked with CAIR-SVCC in the lead up to the 2020 Census to encourage Fresno’s Arabic speakers to complete this year’s questionnaire. She passed out flyers with information about the Census in Arabic at local mosques, and made phone calls to Arabic speaking residents. “Having someone else that can talk to you in your language and convince you about the importance of the Census,” Chafi said, “that really helped to get those numbers up.”

While Chafi is hopeful this year’s count is better than in the past, pandemic shutdowns and a shortened Census collection period by the Trump Administration threaten to leave Arabic speakers undercounted in California once again.

San Diego is currently the only county in the state that provides election materials in Arabic.

In June, CAIR-SVCC and the ACLU of California petitioned Secretary of State Alex Padilla and County Registrar Brandi Orth for greater voting support for Fresno’s Arabic speakers. In response to the letter, Padilla’s office said it would consider adding Arabic as a language requirement for Fresno County in the next language determination, scheduled to take place on January 1, 2022.

Until then, Fresno’s Arabic speaking citizens must rely predominantly on help from bilingual residents. Often, as in Kashak’s case this year, that’s with the help of family members at home.