Peace on Earth

Refugees celebrate first Boise Christmas, share their own traditions


It was trust at first sight. When 10-year-old Queen Iranekund locked eyes with the mysterious red-suited gent, she somehow knew it was OK to lean in and whisper a secret into his ear. After watching dozens of other children rush to greet Santa in a packed-to-the-gills Borah High School cafeteria Dec. 7, Queen waited her turn, bouncing up and down on the tips of her new sneakers, until the time came for a private audience with Saint Nick.

It's a fair bet that Santa and more than a few of his helpers will figure out where Queen's Christmas stocking will be hung this year, far from her native home of Burundi. The U.S. State Department helped rescue Queen and her family from their war-torn East African nation; and with help from organizations such as the Agency for New Americans, the Iranekunds started life anew in Idaho.

Our newest neighbors (the ANA resettles nearly 200 refugees to Idaho each year) are immediately faced with a lengthy to-do list: secure housing, learn a new language and find employment.

Then there are the intangibles, not the least of which is acclimating to a culture that goes a little nuts with its holidays.

"We have some clients who come into our offices every year and ask, 'Just how long is this Christmas season? I thought Christmas was Dec. 25,'" said ANA Director Christina Bruce-Bennion. "And this even comes from a number of refugees with Christian backgrounds."

Perhaps the most telling example of holiday overload occurred when a young Congolese refugee was confused while working his new job as shelf-stocker at a Boise-area retail outlet.

"He came into our office the next day, shook his head and said he was stacking Halloween items on one shelf, Thanksgiving items on the middle shelf and Christmas on the bottom shelf," said Bruce-Bennion.

Inevitably, most refugees come to learn that some Americans go a little overboard when it comes to holidays. Boise's English Language Center shows resettled families how to carve pumpkins for Halloween; a group of Boise State communication students put together an annual Thanksgiving buffet; and, for the past eight years, a group called the Eternal League of Friends--and yes, that's ELF--throws a huge Christmas party for nearly 200 refugees, complete with a big feast, arts and crafts, live entertainment and a visit from Santa.

See a slideshow of the ELF Christmas party by clicking here.

"There were only four of us when we started eight years ago," said Lonni Leavitt-Barker, ELF's elf-in-charge. "I remember our family adopted a Congolese family and we didn't speak a lick of each other's language. Yet, within minutes, my children were on the floor with their children, dancing to music and playing with some new toys. It was exactly what we hoped it would be."

Leavitt-Barker's hopes have exceeded everyone else's expectations as ELF evolved into a volunteer-driven extravaganza. Talking to Boise Weekly in the eye of a Christmas hurricane at ELF's Dec. 7 party, Leavitt-Barker said more than 150 refugees were this year's guests, with each refugee family paired up with a Boise family.

"I think it would be really hard to live in a world with war, and then having to leave that country and come [to the U.S.] without knowing anyone," 9-year-old Asha Soni told BW. Her mother added that Asha agreed to forgo Christmas gifts for her friends so that she could buy gifts for their new guests--a refugee family from Somalia.

At another table, sat Abdul Majidy, his wife and two children, who recently came to Boise from Afghanistan. Majidy said because his family was Muslim, they don't celebrate Christmas, but his two little ones--ages 2 and 3--were loving every minute of the ELF party.

"My children are happy, and that makes me very happy. It was my dream..." Majidy needed to pause for a moment and take a deep breath. "It was my dream for us to see Christmas here."

Majidy said his own family's tradition includes the celebration of Eid Al-Fitr, a feasting holiday at the end of Ramadan.

"Most refugee cultures have some kind of big annual celebration. I think the idea of people coming together for a big feast really resonates," said Bruce-Bennion.

Muhammad and Ruzanna Hasham--he's from Afghanistan, she's from Armenia and they met while they were students in Russia--were recently resettled to Boise with their 2- and 4-year-old daughters. Even though their little ones were anxious to experience Christmas, Ruzanna told BW that her family's big celebration will come in March when they observe Nowruz.

"Nature is sleeping right now; yes? So when nature wakes up, it's Nowruz. It's spring," said Ruzanna. "We say congratulations to one another. We have new clothes for the children and we have wonderful food."

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is another big celebration that many refugees have brought to Idaho.

"And that led to an interesting experience a short time ago," said Bruce-Bennion. "Some of our refugees from Nepal were having a big Diwali celebration at their Boise apartment complex. And they had some wonderful meals and parties. And one of their American neighbors approached me and said, 'Look, this is day three. I'm not sure I appreciate this celebration being in my face for three days.'"

Bruce-Bennion could hardly keep herself from laughing.

"I said, 'You know, I can see how it might be a bit disruptive, but think about how long our Christmas season runs. Think of how that feels to them.' She said, 'Yeah, I guess you're right. I hadn't thought about it.'"