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A New Freedom

Boise celebrates Independence Day with its newest neighbors

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See a slideshow of images from World Refugee Day 2013 here.

Ever since she can remember, Biba Mbenza-Ngoma has loved dolls. Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she collected the tiny treasures from her native land and from countries she could only dream of. Their delicate faces and ornate dresses inspired Mbenza-Ngoma to create her own.

"I started making dolls when I was a little girl, with scraps of fabric that looked like [people from the Congo]," she said.

Today, the 50-year-old Mbenza-Ngoma, with three children of her own (ages 21, 16 and 12), is the founder of Biba's Gift, Hand-Made from the Heart.

"The dream never died when I moved [to Boise], so I started remaking the dolls," she said. "It was a passion of mine and people asked, 'Why don't you just start selling them?' and that's how I started."

Mbenza-Ngoma typically sells her dolls and other ethnic items--such as handmade tote bags--online at bibasgift.etsy.com. But she was particularly thrilled June 22 as she set up her once-a-year booth at the Capital City Public Market to sell her dolls during Boise's observance of World Refugee Day.

"Just being out here is a good experience," she said. "You know you have something good when people come to look, whether they buy or not. They can appreciate it, and that gives me confidence."

Mbenza-Ngoma came to the United States as a student in 1984. Three years later, she was in Boise.

"Idaho is home. It was different when I first arrived here [in 1990], because you never saw anyone of color, so Idaho has definitely changed a lot; it's more diverse," she said. "People say, 'What's in Idaho?' and I say, 'Hey, we are pretty cultured here.'"

Mbenza-Ngoma is one of thousands who left their homes for new and dramatically different lives in Boise. According to the Idaho Office for Refugees, the City of Trees welcomed its first significant wave of refugees in 1976. Through the 1980s, Idaho resettled people from primarily Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. War, famine and scores of foreign policy disputes pushed a mass exodus to the United States, as tens of thousands of refugees shared their personal stories of oppression and religious persecution.

Throughout the 1990s, Idaho resettled more than 5,000 refugees from war-torn countries; refugee advocates say many of those rescued were threatened by ethnic genocide.

Since then, the number of resettled refugees in Idaho has been steadily increasing, said Kara Fink, of the Idaho Office for Refugees.

"Boise and Twin Falls are seen as good cities for refugees to resettle because of an abundance of entry-level jobs, the size and safety of the cities," Fink told Boise Weekly.

At the June 22 edition of the Capital City Public Market--as Mbenza-Ngoma was laying out her display of dolls--thousands of visitors strolled among vendors while nearby street musicians strummed the theme of The Muppet Show. But on this particular Saturday--as it does on the third Saturday of June each year--the market extended a bit further into Boise's Grove Plaza as customers transitioned from the market's usual flowers and tomatoes into an international festival. In honor of World Refugee Day, refugees-turned-entrepreneurs from all over the world lined the Grove Plaza selling international cuisine and handmade artwork, picking up where the market usually ends.

Thawai Panya Hahn came to Idaho seven years ago from Thailand; she's been selling her merchandise on World Refugee Day for the past three years. Nearby, representatives from Peace Together Uganda were selling handcrafted necklaces to benefit scholarships for Ugandan school children. And several feet from them was a circle of drummers from the Global Lounge Group, telling a rhythmic story with some help from the Mladi Behar dancers. The dance company, whose members range in age from 6 to 20, is made up entirely of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In every direction, the market was alight with the colors of flags from around the world, and the air was thick with the aroma of dishes from Somalia, Uzbekistan and Egypt.

Capping things off was the emotional highlight of the day, as Boise rolled out a red carpet for 20 new Americans at a public citizenship ceremony. Refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Laos, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia and Uzbekistan stood in front of their neighbors to swear an oath of allegiance and fidelity to the United States.

"Refugees are here because they have survived a lot of atrocious things. To get here, for a refugee, it's a very long, very difficult journey," Christina Bruce-Bennion, director of the Agency for New Americans, told BW. "They are the strongest people I've ever met, and the fact that they can go through what they've been through is pretty amazing."

Bruce-Bennion said becoming a new American is an achievement that means much more than just reciting an oath.

"As an individual, or as a family, refugees have to work through what their life looks like now," she explained. "There are often role reversals in the family, where younger kids learn English and the parents start to rely on the children to understand things like what the bills mean, which upends the traditional family roles. But the reality is that Boise and Twin Falls in particular, where the largest groups of refugees are, have traditionally been very welcoming to refugees looking to start their lives over in safety.

"I often say the global becomes local," Bruce-Bennion added. "The world is getting smaller and more interconnected, and we see that reflected in our own community."

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was anxious to welcome the new citizens to a city and nation that he said was "an ideal as much as it is a place, one that says everyone has a chance."

In a rush of emotions, strangers became neighbors and the Grove Plaza was awash with cheers, a few tears and plenty of embraces.

"I'm happy, because I'm in America, and I'm happy for my family. I'm free," said Aimerance Ngalula Kanku, a new American from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surrounded by her family, proudly holding her proof of citizenship. "Every night, every morning I'm free."

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