‘Thankful to God, I’m safe.’ Three refugees became Idahoans. Here are their stories
Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun
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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — Idaho has welcomed thousands of refugees, from dozens of countries, for decades.
That tradition slowed in recent years, as the Trump administration placed record-low caps on refugee admissions and temporarily banned travel from Muslim countries, and last year as the COVID-19 pandemic halted travel.
President Joe Biden has lifted the cap, but warned that it will take time to restore the system that helped refugees resettle in the U.S.
When the Idaho Capital Sun asked three local refugees why they or their families chose to leave their original home countries, their answers were the same: Staying would have meant death, danger or misery.
“Nobody wants to leave their home. That’s why it’s called their home,” said Palina Louangketh, founder and executive director of a nonprofit that plans to open a museum in Boise dedicated to telling the stories of people forced out of their homelands.
Sometimes the decision to flee happens over a few years, she said. “Or sometimes, you’re not even thinking about it, but danger is around the corner, and you make the split-second decision to leave with just the clothes on your back.”
Azad Ghulami, 37, Boise
Five refugees arrived in Idaho in March. Three came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. One came from the Central African Republic. And there was Azad Ghulami, a Hazara refugee from the Ghazni Province of Afghanistan.
He came to Boise alone, without his wife or 7-year-old daughter. He doesn’t know how long it will take to reunite with them here, he said. But he’s trying to be patient. He is just starting to build a life here.
Ghulami went from business to business asking for work, he said. He found a security job at a call center and got a driver’s license. He couldn’t waste any time: The financial assistance he receives as a refugee will end soon. And the rent for his apartment is $800 a month.
It took more than 15 years for Ghulami to arrive in the U.S.
He left Afghanistan in 2005, going first to Pakistan, then to England, then seven years as a refugee in Indonesia, including three years in a center that was “like a jail,” he said.
Before getting approval to come to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghulami received multiple screenings and medical examinations.
He arrived in Boise in mid-March, on a late-night flight. The airport was quiet.
“There is not anyone. I am feeling panic, what should I do now?” he said. “And then I asked a guy, I show my card. He said, ‘Do you want to call the police?’ I said, ‘No, it’s OK.’”
He kept waiting and saw his case manager, who also is from Afghanistan, waiting for him with a volunteer and a welcome sign.
“I’m so happy, and when I say that I am so happy, that is from my deepest heart,” he said. “Thankful to God, I’m safe and arrived in this country, and (have) food, and everything … I’m safe in this country. I start maybe a new life.”
Halima Hamud, 22, Boise
Her family fled the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s and spent almost 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. That’s where Halima Hamud was born.
Hamud remembers crying when her family left the only home she knew to come to the U.S. in 2009. Her family was among 98 refugees from Somalia to resettle in Boise that year — and more than 800 Somali refugees who resettled here since the mid-2000s.
Hamud started school in Boise as a fourth grader at Whitney Elementary. It took several years to learn English, she said.
“I didn’t even know how to do math — adding and subtracting — because I was so focused on the environment,” she said. “I was being bullied, sometimes I was the only girl wearing a hijab in the class. … Kids are ruthless sometimes.”
She began to wear jeans and take off her hijab at school.
“I did fit in, but it was at a very high cost, because it wasn’t me,” she said. “I was doing something that deep in my heart I didn’t want to do, just to fit in.”
The harassment didn’t end with childhood; the bullies just got older. One recent example was someone calling her the “N word” while she was shopping.
“Being a Black Muslim woman in Idaho is just very difficult,” she said.
But she chooses instead to focus on “what this city and this community can do for you,” she said.
She points to Idaho’s refugee-focused nonprofits — such as the Agency for New Americans — and Boise’s large refugee community. She credits them, and two teachers (“Miss Robin” at Whitney Elementary and “Miss Rowe” at West Junior High), with helping her find her place.
As she grew up, Hamud said, she felt called to advocate for herself, for other refugees and for women’s issues.
“I was doing so much community work that I felt like, ‘OK, I completely don’t know who I am without this project, without these things,’” she said. “I felt like I had to do everything, especially being a refugee, being an immigrant.”
There was always a thought in the back of her mind: “You could have been better if you would have taken that opportunity.”
She paused in the past year, as many community events went on hiatus, to reflect on her identity, her values and her future.
Now, she thinks, maybe she doesn’t need to take on every project offered to her. “Everything I do with my community is very impactful,” she said.
Hamud is on track to graduate next May from Boise State University, after becoming one of just five BSU students to win the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
“For me, I want to continue my advocacy work for refugee women, and I want to go to graduate school and work on some learning about public policy, and learning about international work,” she said. “My bigger dream is to become a diplomat, and someone who can facilitate those conversations and those relationships within a state or between countries.”
When she imagined America as a child, she envisioned the melting pot — a collection of skin colors, languages, foods, sights and sounds. “It wasn’t one thing, one culture,” she said.
“I hope that everyone sees that and says, OK, let’s have more collections, more people, more culture, more food, more languages,” Hamud said. “I hope that (the U.S.) continues that tradition and doesn’t continue with this, in the past five years, these (views that) ‘America looks the same or speaks the same.’”
Palina Louangketh, 44, Meridian
“My aim is to illuminate the stories from across the globe, the human journey stories,” said Palina Louangketh (pronounced loo-on-gate).
She is working to build the Idaho Museum of the International Diaspora in Boise — an interactive museum to share the stories of refugees through art, food, music, film and more.
She hopes it will ask, and help answer, some of the biggest questions facing Americans: “Where are we at, now, in our human journey story? What do we hope to do with our lives?” she said. “How do we inspire a culture of diversity?”
Louangketh was inspired by her own family’s two-year journey from Laos.
With her mother and older brother, she came to the U.S. as a young child in October 1981 — one of 131,139 refugees admitted to the U.S. from East Asia that year. (The U.S. last year admitted 11,814 refugees from the entire world, according to Refugee Processing Center data.)
Tens of thousands of Laotians fled violence and a totalitarian communist regime in Laos during the 1970s and 1980s. Louangketh was 3 years old when they left Laos for Thailand.
She has a few scattered memories of their journey — but isn’t sure which are genuine memories and which are conjured images from hearing stories over the years.
She remembers being on the back of an escape guide, who helped her hide in a tree.
She remembers waiting in a place with dead bodies, because nobody would look for her family there.
She remembers coming to the banks of the Mekong River, where her mother picked up handfuls of sand and poured it over the children’s heads. Her mother, Phouthasinh Louangketh, later explained: she’d heard that escape guides would sometimes tip their boats and leave the escapees to swim or drown. “I was so scared, I didn’t know who to pray to,” she told Louangketh. “And I scooped sand over your heads (as a prayer) to the god of the earth. … Please protect my children.”
They made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, then flew to the Philippines, where they stayed at another refugee camp. Finally, after waiting more than two years, they boarded a flight to San Francisco where they received medical screenings, got vaccinations and boarded another flight to Boise.
“I started kindergarten immediately when we came,” Louangketh said. She attended the former Franklin Elementary School on the Boise Bench. Starting school while straddling two cultures and identities — Lao and American — was difficult.
“I mean, it was challenging because English was not our primary language at the time, and you know how kids can be brutal,” she said.
Her family found kindness in Boise, though.
Chet and Donna Call, who owned Call Jewelers, were the family’s sponsors, she said. They helped the refugee family navigate their new home.
James D. McKay, who owned a small business making motorcycle seat covers, hired Louangketh’s mother as a seamstress. But he became “Grandpa Jim McKay,” teaching the children “survival skills” and “the importance of: When you work hard, and when you dream big, dreams can come true,” Louangketh said.
She hopes to honor people like them in the Idaho Museum of the International Diaspora, she said.
Louangketh hopes to invite visitors who view immigrants as a danger or a burden, and persuade them “to open up their eyes, to open up their hearts and to experience (the refugee) story, and hopefully that will warm their heart a little bit.”
She formed a nonprofit organization for the museum a few years ago and is now in the early stages of fundraising. She hopes to build it in downtown Boise and to include a commercial kitchen for “exotic eats.”
There are a handful of diaspora museums in the world, she said, but they focus on specific populations such as the Jewish diaspora, African diaspora and Irish diaspora. This would be the first museum to tell the story of global refugees.
Why open it in Idaho? Her research team found 123 different countries of origin and distinct ethnicities represented here since Idaho became a state, she said.
“We survived our journey, so how do we stay resilient?” she said. “How do we gain control of our narratives? And how do we share our lived experiences and our lives, to inspire the next generation to (preserve) our heritage, our culture?”
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