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Resettled in the Heart of America: Part 1

In the lead up to World Refugee Day on June 20, we are featuring the stories of five men and women from around the world who are rebuilding their lives and identities in a quintessentially American setting.

Written by Angie Smith and Hanne Steen Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
A coordinator at the refugee program in Twin Falls, Idaho, teaches recently resettled refugees inside a converted warehouse space. The program is facing opposition amid the national debate over the vetting of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. AP/Otto Kitsinger

In Idaho, land of huckleberry and white pine, strip malls and snow-capped mountains, most outsiders would be surprised to see a group of Congolese women wrapped in brightly colored fabrics waiting at a crosswalk. But it is only the outsiders who do a double take. For most locals, people from other parts of the world are no longer an anomaly.

Since the 1970s, Idaho has been a preferred resettlement destination for refugees from Eastern Europe, Africa, East, West and Central Asia and the Caribbean due to its relatively low cost of living and high quality of life. With a reputation for friendliness, salt-of-the-earth values, but also conservative politics, the capital Boise is not a city that immediately calls to mind cultural diversity. In spite of that – or perhaps because of it – it has become a model of what the refugee resettlement could look like in other unassuming towns and cities.

While the U.S. has a historical reputation of targeted resettlement programs and a generous asylum regime, recent years have witnessed an ebbing political will towards taking in refugees, despite the accelerated flows of asylum seekers across the globe. With many of these refugees hailing from countries where the U.S. has been involved in conflicts, especially Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the rates of their resettlement have certainly not matched the need. While the Obama administration vowed to raise the ceiling to 85,000, researchers point out that it is a “modest number” compared to the 800,000 that applied for asylum in Germany by the end of 2015.

Given the immense need for global resettlement, a number that has never been higher since the end of World War II, the U.N. Refugee Agency continues to call upon the developed countries that are best capable of absorbing refugees to step up to the plate.

In the lead up to World Refugee Day, marked every year on June 20, we are launching a series on stories on five men and women from Iraq, Congo, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sudan – the leading countries of origin of refugees in Idaho – who have quickly become part of the multicultural fabric of the quaint mountainous state.

These refugees have endured a long and grueling screening process before being admitted into the U.S. Their eclectic backgrounds and versatile skills and interests are both a boon and a challenge for the host communities. While some of the refugees are highly educated, others have never been able to attend school. Some were political activists in their home countries, while others were forced out violently because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or personal beliefs. While some have come on their own, others have relocated with their family members.

Relocation, a process that is often aided by existing refugee communities, local agencies such as the Office for Refugees and the Agency for New Americans, and NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee, is only the first step towards assimilation.

Although the burden of fitting into the host community often falls upon the shoulder of the refugee, assimilation is a mutual process. Among native Idahoans, there are those who accept new refugees into their community with open arms, while others keep a safe distance, viewing the overt cultural differences with a mix of skepticism and apathy. Many dismiss the supposed strain that refugees put on local resources, the supposed threat of encroaching Islamic fundamentalism and the possibilities of refugees’ links with terrorism – all points that conservative politicians in the U.S. have wielded in their anti-migration rhetoric.

Rick Martin, the head of the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center works to gather petition signatures in Twin Falls, Idaho. (AP/Otto Kitsinger)

Rick Martin, the head of the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center works to gather petition signatures in Twin Falls, Idaho. (AP/Otto Kitsinger)

But there has also been an increase in anti-refugee sentiment in recent years with local and national campaigns calling for halting resettlement and more stringent vetting methods. At the same time, discrimination and prejudice are rife on a local level, and bullying and violence towards the outsiders is not uncommon. But such mixed experiences are not unique to one state. This is Idaho’s story, but it is also America’s story.

The following accounts relayed by the resettled men and women present glimpses of the collective narrative of the refugee communities in Idaho. With the opportunity for a fresh start arrives a new set of trials – rebuilding lives and identities in an entirely different culture, climate and language, while also coming to terms with leaving their original homes.

Remona Htoo from Myanmar relays the first account.

Remona’s Story

Remona belongs to the Karen ethnic minority group from Myanmar. She was resettled in the U.S. along with her parents when she was 12 years old. (Stronger Shines the Light/Angie Smith)

Remona belongs to the Karen ethnic minority group from Myanmar. She was resettled in the U.S. along with her parents when she was 12 years old. (Stronger Shines the Light/Angie Smith)

“My name is Remona and I am 21 years old. I am from Burma and I grew up in Thailand. But I am neither Thai or Burmese. I am Karen. My parents left Burma because of the civil war. When my parents fled I wasn’t born yet. My mother gave birth to me along the Thai-Burmese border, while they were on the run and fleeing violence. They don’t talk much about this episode. They always told me that life goes on, the past is the past and so they don’t look back. Maybe it was too painful to recount.

“I moved here when I was 12 years old, but I felt a lot older because of my experiences as a refugee and because of all the little things that kids do that I never did. I didn’t play with any dolls because I was too busy. I started cooking and doing household chores when I was six years old. I would get water from the river and the well and I’d carry it back and also wash all the clothes. My doll was made out of a bamboo stick. Sometimes, I would pretend to be someone different – for example, a teacher. I’d pick a banana leaf off a tree and learn how to write on it. I was always thinking about the future. My father was a big part of that. He always encouraged me to study. When I was 14 years old I started to volunteer at St. Luke’s Hospital here in the city.

“My parents work at the airport. My mom is a janitor and my dad a cook. I have never seen them complain about their jobs. Some people I know would be complaining. But they are not, because life back there [Burma and Thailand] was much worse. I don’t complain either. Growing up in a refugee camp – that is a part of my experience. It was bad, but at the same time it was also good for me, because I learned how valuable life is. Here, we take a lot for granted – food, transportation, electricity, running water. Getting enough water to survive was a huge part of my life in Thailand.

“Here in the American communities, I feel women are more accepted. Women can be proud of what they do. I am the first Karen woman [from my local community] to attend a four-year university. In addition to my own education, my goal is to also convince other girls from my homeland to go to college. For those who would simply like to work, I try to explain, ‘You are in a new[er] place right now than where we came from. You don’t need to stay at home and only be a housewife and take care of the kids and the house. You can achieve other things too!’ It is interesting for me to have grown up between the two cultures, as some of the newly arrived women and girls look to me for advice and perspective.

“And I enjoy playing this role. When I heard that I was going to move to the United States, I already had a future goal that I want to help people as a nurse or a doctor. But I just changed my major to medical social work. Once I got into university, I realized that there were several way to help people.

“It is not always easy. Some people don’t even know what the word ‘refugee’ means. So I have to explain the whole process of how a person becomes a refugee and my own experience. Sometimes people here [in the U.S.] are so taken aback that they start treating me differently. But I don’t like it when they treat me with pity as I would rather be treated as an equal. To fellow students who do that, I resist and say, ‘I am just like you now.’”

The Karen From Myanmar

Ethnic Karen children leave school at the Mae Rama Luang Refugee Camp in western Thailand, along the border with Myanmar. (AP/David Longstreath)

Ethnic Karen children leave school at the Mae Rama Luang Refugee Camp in western Thailand, along the border with Myanmar. (AP/David Longstreath)

Resource-rich and one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, Myanmar is a former colony that also experienced the iron clasp of the junta, chronic civil war in its ethnic minority regions, state-led repression and extreme human rights abuses since it formation as a state in 1948.

Myanmar’s 135 officially classified ethnic groups constitute up to 40 percent of its total population. The popular notion of a singular Myanmar with people bearing a fairly homogenous identity fighting a repressive government is a misconstrued notion. Many of the border regions of the country where the minority communities are concentrated have experienced brutal civil war since the formation of a Burmese state. The Karen, the third largest minority group, number between five and seven million and hail from a mountainous region in South Eastern Myanmar flanked by the fertile Irrawaddy Delta.

Amid decades-long fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups and deliberate state-led ethnic cleansing campaigns, many Karen fled to neighboring Thailand. Around 150,000 Karen live in Thai refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border in abject poverty. Some have been there for more than two decades, with an entire generation born stateless. Another 250,000 live in Thailand as unclassified migrant workers. Even with the reform period, returning to their home communities – riddled with chronic fighting and with few prospects of making a living – is not a feasible option. Despite hosting them for an extended period of time, Thailand has not ratified the 1952 Refugee Convention and hence naturalization of the Karen is not an option. Meanwhile, rumors of repatriation are rife.

The U.S. has resettled around 5,000 people from Myanmar to date, of which 271 live in Idaho. Remona Htoo is one of them.

This series has been produced in collaboration with Stronger Shines the Light Inside a photography project that tells the collective story of resettled refugees in Idaho. We will present a new individual account every day this week in the lead up to World Refugee Day on June 20.

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