Some newcomers to Idaho bring heirlooms, tapestries or recipes from their homelands. Refik Sadikovic brought shrapnel.
"The shrapnel reminds me of the purpose of life," he said. "During the war, I was helping people. I didn't want to kill anybody. Somehow I was chosen to survive."
The war was in Sadikovic's birthplace of Vrnograc, Bosnia, among the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. In 1992, Sadikovic was forced to join the Bosnian army but, in 1994, when he said all hope for the Bosnians was lost, Sadikovic and nearly 40,000 other refugees escaped into what he called "a no-man's land" between the Serbian and Croatian forces. Sadikovic crossed rivers and countless minefields, was held at gunpoint by Slovenian police and sent to a refugee camp. In 1995, the shrapnel from a hand grenade ripped into his body, wounding his hands, arms, chest and mouth.
- Allen R Ansell
- Shrapnel ripped through the hands, arms, chest and mouth of Refik Sadikovic in 1995.
Sadikovic's tale of survival would last another five years and several more dramatic chapters before he arrived in Boise in 2000. Here, he swept streets and learned English by listening to the radio. By 2009, he was working at Micron and had received bachelor's and master's degrees from Boise State University. Sadikovic is now pursuing a doctorate in education, curriculum and instruction.
His miraculous story is only one of 10 chapters in a new book, Half the World, which chronicles some of the refugees who are now an integral part of the Boise community. The book, published by Rediscovered Books, is the eighth in the Boise State University Investigate Boise Community Research series, which has examined Treasure Valley sprawl, the recession, the local sustainable food community and the Boise connection to all things Basque. What sets Half the World apart from the previous efforts is urgency, echoing headlines from around the world concerning political and cultural debates over refugees.
In "Improbable Sanctuary," the first chapter of the book, historian/author/soon-to-retire Boise State professor Dr. Todd Shallat mentioned the Idaho town of Filer, where a pastor preached against a "Muslim refugee agenda," calling Boise "a refugee dump" in 2015. Shallat also referred to a 2015 Twin Falls debate over a refugee resettlement center at the College of Southern Idaho and the April 2017 guilty pleas from three young male refugees in connection with an assault of a 5-year-old girl at a Twin Falls apartment complex.
"And then there was this... what's the word? Asinine. This asinine attempt by [Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter] to align himself with national hysteria over refugees," said Shallat.
He was talking about November 2015, when Otter and two dozen other governors sent a letter to then-President Barack Obama, demanding a halt to "rubber-stamped" immigration/refugee programs.
"Do you remember that? Totally misinformed," Shallat said.
A little more than a block from the Idaho Statehouse, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was in his City Hall office crafting a different message.
"Bieter was shouting-distance away, but political light-years away, from Otter," said Shallat. "Bieter ignited his own headlines by drafting a defiant response regarding refugees."
In a December 2016 letter to other U.S. mayors, Bieter wrote: "We don't debate about who is more worthy or where they're from. We are a welcoming city. We all have work to do. When it comes to immigration and refugees, presidents and Congress get to 'say' but mayors have to 'do.'"
In "Improbable Sanctuary," Shallat examined the complex relationship Boise has had and still has with refugees, writing, "Both an immigrant city and an anti-immigrant city, Boise, historically had shunned prejudice but also endorsed it depending on what was at stake."
Today, Neighbors United, a Boise-based clearinghouse for refugee support services, links 30 nonprofits and 16 government agencies, and the Agency for New Americans provides case workers in 12 languages. The International Rescue Committee helps refugees become self-sustaining and the Boise Independent School District coordinates translation services in 84 languages.
Shallat also helped bust three common myths regarding refugees: No. 1, that U.S. Homeland Security confirms "there is no harder way to enter the country than as a refugee, subject to "the highest level of security check." No. 2, "it is a fiction that refugees bleed the coffers of public assistance." No. 3, Shallat pointed to studies that insist refugees have not displaced native workers. Rather, refugees in agricultural regions can reduce dependence on guest or undocumented workers.
"The city of Boise defies red state stereotypes," Shallat concluded, and the city's embrace of refugees "is proof that right and left, secular and religious, we share common goals, even for different political reasons."
Telling Emelda's Story
Recent Boise State graduate Laura Winslow is a citizen of the world. Born in Copenhagen, she holds dual citizenship in Denmark and the U.S. and was anxious to study in America. She earned degrees in marketing and sociology but takes particular pride in her contribution to Half the World.
"She's a beautiful writer," said Shallat, eliciting a smile from Winslow, who was within earshot.
Winslow said interviewing the main subject for her essay, "Leave One to Remember," was particularly daunting—requiring as many as three people to interpret Swahili into French, into English and back again.
"When I first started working on this chapter, it gave me the opportunity to do some real sociological work," said Winslow. "I love the idea of humanity. I met Emelda, and she is quintessentially innocent. Her story begins when she was a child."
- Laura Winslow
- Emelda Nzobhampari, a native of Rwanda, is now a chocolatier at Happy Day Chocolates in Boise.
Emelda Nzobhampari, 27, works as a chocolatier at Happy Day Chocolates—part of a job readiness program from Boise-based Full Circle Exchange. She has come a long way since 1994. Nzobhampari hasn't seen her parents since then, when they left her with grandparents in a Rwandan village. Those grandparents were killed soon after by rebels in a war that, by May 1994, The New York Times reported, prompted a slow march of Rwandan refugees into Tanzania more than 10 miles long. Nzobhampari, then 5-years-old, wandered her war-torn corner of the world, alone, for years—until 2005, when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began a file to help determine her fate.
At first, Nzobhampari thought she might be resettled to Australia but, in 2006, the Tanzanian government began pushing Rwandan refugees back to Rwanda.
"We were told to go back to where we came from, that we were no longer welcome," she said.
In her essay chronicling Nzobhampari's journey, Winslow wrote: "Everyone she [knew]—her friends, her family, all of the people she used to see around her—was dead."
While in still another refugee camp, Nzobhampari met Emmanuel. They attended worship services together, became friends and fell in love. One day, United Nations officials posted a list at the camp naming those selected to be resettled. Nzobhampari's name was on the list. Emmanuel's name wasn't. By then, Nzobhampari was expecting the couple's child.
"We wanted to get married," she told Winslow. "We didn't have time."
The baby boy, named Remember, was born in July 2014. One year later, Nzobhampari and Remember arrived in Boise.
"Emmanuel, who has since been resettled to Canada, calls Emelda every day," Winslow wrote. "The two hope to find a way to be together."
Emily Fritchman is a Boise native. In the fall, she'll begin her senior year at Boise State with a double major in history and English. At 21, she's the youngest contributor to Half the World. Nonetheless, she's already a published author. Fritchman's work appeared in Forgotten Stories of the Boise Valley, published in 2016, in which she wrote about visiting a gold mine in the now-abandoned town of Pearl, Idaho.
"But the story I worked on this past year is about something called teff, described as a tiny golden-brown grain that can give an Ethiopian injera flatbread a tangy sourdough-like taste," Fritchman said. "It's a native species of grass in Ethiopia."
Yordano Refu, an Ethiopian refugee who was resettled with her family to Boise, is what Fritchman called "a teff connoisseur." Today, she works for one of the largest teff exporters in the U.S.—a farmer and biologist from the Boise Valley.
Wayne Carlson was a Red Cross volunteer in Ethiopia during the 1970s. His experiences inspired him and his wife Elizabeth to relocate to the Boise Valley where they studied the climate, worked in the seed industry and bought a five-acre farm. Soon, they were growing teff.
That led Fritchman to Kibram Milash, another refugee from Ethiopia. Escaping extreme poverty and violence in his home country, Milash resettled to Boise in 2013, working as a janitor, taxi driver and barista before he secured a business loan. Milash opened a kiosk in the Boise International Market, but his entrepreneurial dream went up in smoke—literally—when a fire gutted the market in September 2015. Starting over, Milash opened Kibrom's Ethiopian and Eritrean Restaurant on State Street in Boise. Teff grown at Carlson's Canyon County farm regularly fills the pantry of Milash's restaurant.
"I do not feel ashamed to ask for anything," he said. "In America, everything has a solution."
Fritchman also spent some time in the Northwest home of the Refu family where, she wrote, "food is ceremony, a cultural bond."
"If you know an Ethiopian, you have eaten teff injera," Refu said. "I think of teff and injera as doors that lead to questions and discussions, bringing cultures together."
Boise Pushes Back Against Statehouse Hysteria
Half the World concludes with a chapter written by Dr. Errol Jones, professor emeritus at Boise State and winner of the city of Boise biennial award for excellence in civic contribution to history and the arts. Jones wrote of what he called external "hysteria that challenges the City of Boise's commitment to human rights." He pointed to a 2015 Idaho Statehouse rally of self-named "militiamen" demonstrating against refugees, and a 2016 bill in the Idaho House of Representatives that would have prohibited state courts from acquiescing to Islamic or Sharia law (the bill was ultimately blocked in the Idaho Senate). More recently, Jones referred to President Donald Trump's repeated efforts to ban refugees from majority-Muslim nations.
All of this came, Jones pointed out, as the city of Boise continues to open its arms to refugees.
"Boise institutions had rejected the politics of exclusion," Jones wrote. "Whether other Idahoans would overcome the cycle of xenophobia remained to be seen."
- Kelsey Hawes
- An average 1,450 people become U.S. citizens each year at naturalization ceremonies in Boise.