In January 2017, Maytham Alshadood helped found the DRIVE Project with the support of other immigrants and refugees. Short for Denver Refugees and Immigrants Vitalization and Empowerment Project, DRIVE seeks to establish and activate civic engagement within the refugee and immigrant communities. They want to empower immigrants and refugees to become their own advocates by focusing on civic engagement education, increasing nonpartisan voter registration and public policy advocacy to do so.

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Alshadood noticed that “there was a gap in civic engagement in the [refugee and immigrant] community.” And after the results of the election, he recognized the incredible need for these communities to be engaged in the national political discussion.

Refugees Belong in Colorado – Photo courtesy of Big Picture Media

“I don’t blame my community for not being civically engaged,” Alshadood commented. He further explained that during the election “there was an uptick in prejudice and racism” that contributed to the absence of many immigrant citizens in the political discussions. For many immigrants and refugees who have gained citizenship, the voting process and US politics, in general, are still foreign concepts.

Engaging Immigrants and Refugees
in Local Politics

Welcome Home – Photo courtesy of Big Picture Media

Another member of the team, Palwasha Khan, commented on the importance of an organization such as DRIVE for the immigrant and refugee community. “A lot of times when you come here as a refugee or as an immigrant, it feels very lonely.” An immigrant herself, she explained the peace of mind that comes with knowing that “there is an organization out there that is strictly dedicated to helping you understand your rights and connecting you to those resources.”

The DRIVE Project works both citizens and those who have not gained citizenship to explain the political process and teach both communities about their rights. To bolster civic engagement among the immigrant and refugee communities, DRIVE started hosting educational workshops to teach them how to engage in the political discussion, regardless of their citizenship status.

In some of these workshops, DRIVE explains the various bills, campaigns and elected office positions so voters know what they are voting on for a particular ballot. Khan added, “We’re not here to tell them ‘vote this way’ or ‘don’t vote that way,’ it’s just to provide them with the education they need to be able to make decisions for themselves.” The goal is always to empower the immigrant and refugee communities to participate in making political decisions where they live.

“There’s a chance that voting is a foreign concept to some of our folks and it helps if the person that’s talking to you about it is not so foreign to you.”

Your Vote Matters – Photo courtesy of Big Picture Media

But in order for immigrant and refugee US citizens to vote, they must register. DRIVE also helps these communities go through that process because, as Alshadood pointed out, “[voting] gives you a lot of power.” He continued, “that power we, [as the immigrant and refugee community], have been leaving out there on the table and not claiming it.”

As a State Registered Voter Registration Drive, the nonprofit has a team of dedicated volunteers – immigrants and refugees themselves – to help members of their community register to vote. Alshadood expressed how important it is to have immigrants and refugees helping others register. “There’s a chance that voting is a foreign concept to some of our folks and it helps if the person that’s talking to you about it is not so foreign to you.”

However, Alshadood also recognizes the generosity of the volunteers. “I understand my community struggles to make a living, and sometimes we have to work different jobs and odd hours to piece together our own income.” He applied for a grant last year to help pay those registering voters for the midterm elections, but didn’t receive the funds. Nevertheless so many in the community willing volunteered their time to assist other immigrants and refugees to register in time for the election.

Senate Bill 18-087

Another of DRIVE’s goals is to increase public policy advocacy, and though the nonprofit is only two years old, it is already making progress in this area. Alshadood was motivated by his own difficult experience getting in-state tuition for college after working in the United States Department of Defense. After applying to the University of Colorado, Alshadood learned he could not receive in-state tuition in Colorado. But having just moved from Iraq, he was not a resident of another US state where he could apply to college and receive a discounted tuition rate. Unable to afford the full tuition costs, Alshadood waited two years to establish residency and attend college in Colorado.

In an effort to prevent other immigrants and refugees with visas from experiencing his own inconveniences, Alshadood decided to fight for in-state tuition for special immigrants and refugees. In February of 2018, Colorado Senate Bill 18-087 passed unanimously to grant foreign nationals settled in Colorado in-state tuition at public universities.

Alshadood credited the relatively fast passing of this bill to their ability to change the narrative surrounding immigrants and refugees. “We’re always highlighted as these helpless people in need of a handout and humanitarian assistance,” he explained. But in reality immigrants and refugees help improve the local and national economy. According to an economic impact study published in 2018, every government dollar spent on refugee resettlement results in $1.68 in economic activity.

“At that point, I wouldn’t even call them dollars spent,” Alshadood added, “I would call them dollars invested in refugee resettlement.” After immigrants and refugees obtain a degree, they are better able to support the US local and national economy by filling employment gaps in industries that are rapidly expanding.

Looking Towards the Future

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2018 brought success in passing the in-state tuition senate bill and registering voters for the midterm elections. Now the DRIVE Project wants to focus on expanding their workshops to give the immigrant and refugee communities more opportunity to learn and engage civically in local politics.

In 2019 the organization hopes to discover “what else the community is lacking that [DRIVE] can help support,” Khan explained. In the coming year, Alshadood also hopes to explore options to support the immigrant and refugee communities beyond Denver and Colorado. “We’ve had a lot of organizations that have supported us so far,” he added. “We also want to give back by supporting others.”

In the meantime, the DRIVE Project team is doing a lot for the Denver immigrant and refugee community. Each member of the team has another job outside of DRIVE, and they all work for the project pro bono. In addition to volunteering their time, a few members of the team have invested financially in the organization including buying an email G Suite, reserving and paying for the website domain and renting an office space.

Alshadood hopes to obtain enough funds through donations and grants to pay the DRIVE Project team for their hard work. “Again one of the things that I don’t want to do is have people work for free, especially people in our community. It takes a lot to get to a space of economic self-sufficiency” as an immigrant or refugee, which only makes the work DRIVE does even more inspiring.

Refugees Welcome – Photo courtesy of Big Picture Media

“It’s truly a mission-driven organization,” Khan added. Her dedication to the Project and her love for the community is clear. She called the experience humbling as she is able to see the true difference she helps make in her community. “The resilience of immigrants and refugees is really really unwavering” as they create a home in a new country. “It’s important to cultivate that spirit.”

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To learn more about the DRIVE Project, visit the website.

All photography courtesy of Big Picture Media Group.

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