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Destination Boise

Every year, nearly a thousand refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East journey to Idaho to make a new life in America.

Idaho, a landlocked state with dreary winters and an overwhelmingly white population, might seem an unlikely destination for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Yet every year, nearly 1,000 asylum seekers settle in Idaho, which accepts one of the largest shares of refugees, relative to its population, of any state.

The influx began in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, when 130,000 refugees fled Vietnam and arrived in America within a matter of months. When Governor Jerry Brown of California attempted to prevent a plane full of refugees from landing at a military base in Sacramento, Idaho redoubled its effort to welcome those in need. Today, the Idaho Office for Refugees provides newcomers with English lessons, driving instruction, social workers, and access to health care, education, housing, and jobs. A majority of the refugees come from war-torn regions in Iraq, Congo, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia. Many are persecuted religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims. Over the past year, leading Republicans—including Governor Butch Otter—have demanded a halt to the program, suggesting it could be a pipeline for terrorists.

TANZANIA: Rocky, 18, moved to Boise to escape a war back home. “There was a lot of gunshots, but I was in my mom’s hands, so I was protected,” he says. His father died last September. “So my life has changed a little bit. I knew that whatever happened, my dad as going to take care of it, not me.”

Nearly 700 refugees settle in Boise each year, and photographer Angie Smith has followed a handful of families as they navigate their new world. For asylum seekers, life in America’s 99th-largest city is calm, but confusing. Many aren’t used to handling money or paying bills. Some have been stopped by the police for minor infractions. Others have developed high blood pressure from spending so much time indoors, watching TV and eating unhealthy foods. “Some people, when they start to eat, they cry,” says Dadiri Nuro, the former president of the Bantu Zigua community in Boise, who moved to the city after nearly a decade in a refugee camp. “Their memories go back to their relatives: I’m eating this food, and my people, they’re hungry.” Nuro has started a farm where refugees can grow African corn and other familiar crops. “They can plant things they know back home,” he says. “So they can be a little bit relieved.”

SOMALIA: Members of the Gosha Education Foundation pray in a backyard in Boise during a break in their meeting. The Gosha are a Bantu minority who converted to Islam in the nineteenth century as captives of the Arab slave trade. The group meets three times a year to discuss how to help those still in refugee camps back home.
CONGO: Alfonse, 48, has worked as a housekeeper to support her five kids, two of whom remain in a refugee camp. She makes her own clothes: “I love it so much, because it’s my identity.”
BURMA: Sar Bah Bi, 25, is a member of a Muslim minority in Burma. She met her husband at the YMCA. They raise vegetables to sell at a local market and work until 3 a.m. cleaning at a bank.
BURUNDI: Maria, 28, prepares food at a party for a fellow refugee who graduated from Boise State University. Fewer than one percent of refugees attend college after resettlement.
SUDAN: Khamisa, 30, worked two jobs in Boise, sleeping less than two hours a night. “My kids keep me going,” she says. “If I can see them laughing every day, I don’t think of anything else.”
KENYA: Hajia, 14, has been in school in Boise for a year, where she studies science, social science, and English. As a girl, she feels she has more freedom in America, but her goal remains the same: to become a doctor. “I had the same dream in Africa and here,” she says.