Hundreds of people gathered on the Idaho Statehouse steps Sept. 12 and posed for a photo behind a sign reading, "Refugees Welcome in Idaho." Volunteers wearing blue T-shirts worked the crowd, urging attendees to sign petitions, contribute to crowdfunding campaigns, take selfies and plug into social media to spread the word, summed up with a hashtag that doubled as the name of the event: #refugeeswelcome.
"We need to make our voice heard so people will hear us," said Ahmed Abdulrhman, a former aeronautical engineer who fled Iraq in 2009 and became a United States citizen in September 2014.
The rally took place at a time when the plight of refugees is making headlines around the world—including in Idaho.
Globally, more than 4 million Syrians are seeking asylum from a brutal, yearslong civil war, sparking a migration crisis and straining the immigration policies of several European countries.
In Idaho, as many as 300 refugees are due to be resettled in the Twin Falls area over the next year, prompting complaints about an influx of "radical Muslims." Meanwhile, a group calling itself The Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center is angling to do exactly as its name implies: shutter the College of Southern Idaho's Refugee Center, which since the 1980s has helped about 5,000 people find new homes in the U.S.
The citizen-led effort to block refugees from entering Idaho has gained traction in Twin Falls County, with a petition not only to ban refugee centers but criminalize attempts by county commissioners to overturn it. Opponents of the center have criticized it for its cost and suggested terrorists could use it has a way to enter the U.S. According to Idaho law, only 3,842 signatures—or 20 percent of the number of people who voted in Twin Falls County during the 2014 general election—are needed to put the initiative on the ballot in November.
The rancor over CSI's Refugee Center notwithstanding, fundraising efforts surpassed $50,000 to help rebuild the Boise International Market after a two-alarm fire gutted the building on Sept. 5, destroying nearly 20 businesses owned mostly by refugees. The success of the funding campaign showed some of the goodwill that has made Idaho, according to the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and The Washington Post "Wonkblog," one of the top-five most welcoming states for refugees.
According to figures from the ORR, the U.S. accepted almost 70,000 refugees in fiscal year 2014, of which 978 settled in the Gem State. Based on total population, Idaho took in 100 or more refugees per 100,000 residents, ranking the state among North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Vermont for widest acceptance of asylum seekers.
In Boise, refugees have joined other new Americans to build a growing multicultural community centered on shared gardens, festivals, local schools and—until the fire this month—the Boise International Market, which since its April 2015 grand opening had become a gathering place for both refugees and those wishing to support them.
The support was widespread following the fire, with members of the BIM vendor council launching a GoFundMe campaign that raised $1,100 in the first hour. By Sept. 9, the Boise International Market Family Fund had incorporated into a nonprofit with a mission of supporting displaced vendors. On Sept. 13, crowdfunding efforts had raised more than $51,000.
"We were going to do this before [Boise International Market] burned down; we knew then that this was the right time," said Josh Wiese, who spearheaded the #refugeeswelcome event at the Capitol.
Nick Armstrong, a volunteer at #refugeeswelcome, said he believes communities should meet displaced people with compassion rather than skepticism.
"You have some pushback about whether we should resettle refugees," said Armstrong, who also works for Local Community Partners matching volunteers with resettlement agencies. "These people have been through a lot of trauma, and we want to be here to welcome them."
In Twin Falls, opponents of CSI's Refugee Center will face legal hurdles before their initiative reaches the ballot. Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs, who reviewed the measure, released his non-binding opinion that the proposed ballot measure violates the federal prerogative to regulate immigration, demonstrates no clear harm posed by refugee resettlement and violates the principle that no legislature can legally bind a future legislature.
"There are no alterations or revisions to this initiative that would render it constitutional and/or legal," he wrote in the opinion.
Despite local challenges to refugees, Idaho Peace Coalition Board President Liz Paul, who also volunteered at #refugeeswelcome, said Idaho has "provided a very welcoming environment."
"It's important to stand up for things that matter," she said.