Boise Mayor Dave Bieter looked out on a crowd of thousands of onlookers streaming through the Grove Plaza, 17 of whom were about to become America's newest citizens. Bieter posed a simple but thought-provoking question:
"Is there anything more important than home?"
Some in the crowd nodded in agreement, even more let out a woo. The exclamation was a highlight of 2019's edition of Boise's World Refugee Day, which has been celebrated in some capacity since 2001. This year's official citizenship ceremony included people from Bhutan, Burma, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, Sudan and Ukraine.
Officials said becoming a new U.S. citizen means much more than renouncing allegiance to one's former country. Indeed the moment can be bittersweet in that it closes a chapter of their lives, but it's also a time of great optimism.
"Leaving your home country is a difficult decision to make. But war and persecution drive people out of their homes, they're forced to become refugees," said Kara Fink, Outreach and Partnership Manager at Idaho Office for Refugees. "The choice to become an American citizen really shows how important safety, security and community is."
Fink said making the choice to become an American is no easy feat. The first obstacle is overcoming a wait time—a person must wait at least five years through permanent residency in the U.S. to apply to become a citizen. Next, learning English is a requirement for applicants because all four parts of the test are conducted in English.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Test is rigorous. While the reading, writing and speaking portions of the test might be a breeze for most natural-born U.S. citizens, it's the civics portion of the exam that is particularly difficult. It includes a list of 100 possible questions on American history, geography and government.
Here are just a few examples:
• How many amendments does the Constitution have?
• The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
• Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
• When was the Constitution written?
• Who was President during World War I?
Boise Weekly posed those questions to a number of natural born citizens on the streets, very few could answer all five correctly. But for those taking the naturalization test, knowing the answer to all 100 is critical. Simply put, applicants don't know which 10 of the 100 questions that will be given during the actual test.
For the World Refugee Day Celebration, The Grove Plaza was filled with families dressed in their best attire, celebrating the ones they love who would soon receive citizenship. Through the day, performances by Tora'dan, Joyful Children's Choir and Mladi Behar Dancers provided ample representation for much of Boise's increasingly diverse community.
The citizenship ceremony lasted only about 10 minutes, but the crowd's energy built with each passing moment. Seventeen refugees were asked to stand in the front row and hold up their right hand while Micah Brown, USCIS Boise Field Office Director administered the Oath of Allegiance. Once the oath was finished the hundreds of people present cheered for their new fellow Americans, an uproarious welcome into citizenship.
"Boise recently received welcoming certification from the organization Welcoming America," said Fink, "which really just validates all of the great things that the people of the city have been doing to make sure that those who arrive as refugees and immigrants have a place in the community, and there's a pathway for folks to use their talents and skills to become full members of this community while enriching it."
The World Refugee Day Celebration was put on by the Idaho Office for Refugees, the Agency for New Americans, and the International Rescue Committee. All three have aided new refugees in remaking their lives in Boise. They provide housing, furnishings, health care, English language classes and more to help them transition smoothly.
"I really believe our welcoming is part of why Boise is such a great place to be," said Fink.