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The Idea of America

Refugees in Boise talk about the ideal and the reality of life in the U.S.

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I'm not sure it was World Refugee Day, but some nine years ago, I went to an international cultural celebration at Boise State. I saw a short black guy in a button-up shirt, with the top button buttoned. Taking a slight risk at embarrassment, I went up to him, and in my best lilting Ethiopian accent said, "Dehna neh."

Don't be too impressed. I don't really speak Amharic, but I'd recently returned from Addis Ababa and recognized his top-button style as uniquely Ethiopian.

Geta and I became fast friends. As he struggled to find meaningful work--beyond the assembly line at Micron and cleaning hotels at night--we shared many, many meals, alternating spaghetti and meat sauce with doro wat: spicy Ethiopian chicken.

It took him a few years, but Geta ended up following a woman to Spokane, enrolling in nursing school, and now he works at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

A few weeks ago, I went to the English Learning Center, a language school for newly resettled refugees in Boise. During a class on how to find cool, free stuff to do in Boise Weekly, I asked the students what we should write for World Refugee Day, a celebration for refugees on June 20.

More than 5,000 refugees from across the globe have come to Boise in the last decade, first from Bosnia and Herzegovina and more recently from Somalia and Sudan, Burma and Bhutan and Iraq.

One student suggested we ask refugees what they thought America would be like before they got here. And how the United States lives up to its reputation abroad.

Once shaped largely by Hollywood, America's reputation has suffered in recent years across the world. But for many refugees, America is still a land of hope where anything is possible.

"It's all rosy, and life would change immediately when they get here, they would not have to struggle as much as they have struggled in the past," said Keziah Sullivan, community outreach specialist at the International Rescue Committee, one of Boise's resettlement agencies.

But after a few months, often when their financial assistance runs out, reality hits home.

"The United States is, after all, not such an easy place to live, and they have to exert themselves in order to succeed," Sullivan said.

For some refugees, First World living is completely overwhelming. They may come from villages where whatever one needs to subsist--a goat, a few crops, local building materials--is right at hand. Or they come from a refugee camp where the basics of food and shelter and clothing are provided in big white U.S. Agency for International Development bags.

"But here, even water or even ice, you have to pay for it," Sullivan said.

Some refugees in Boise, on the other hand, came from highly educated, upper-class families. My friend Geta managed a large textile factory in Ethiopia and knew our history better than I did. Many of the younger Bhutanese refugees in Boise have university experience, and many Iraqis worked as professionals before fleeing their war-torn country.

So we asked them: What did you think this place would be like? The answers varied, and since we did not use interpreters (most of the interviews were conducted at an English class, after all), some has been lost in translation.

But some interesting themes emerged in the responses. People shared a respect for the rule of law in the United States, wonderment at the respect for different cultures here and surprise at the cold, cold winter from which we have just emerged.

And almost all expressed some shock at the difficulties of finding work, navigating the bureaucracy and getting around town.

Here are their thoughts.

Luma Jasim, 33, and Fidel Nshombo, 25

"What I expected about the U.S. before I came was a mix between hope for me and my family and, at the same time, there were suspicions about this new experience," said Luma, an artist and BW blogger (The Grip at boiseweekly.com).

Luma, from Baghdad, had restarted her life several times and knew there would be some suffering in her move to Boise.

"Every part of this world has negative and positive points, no places are perfect," she said. "There are so many details and rules for every single thing in the U.S. and if you want to understand it you will spend a lot of your lifetime figuring it out."

Luma notes that Americans waste a lot of paper on advertising and medical paperwork and that life seems to be largely taken up by work in an effort to survive.

"Like heaven," Boise Weekly blogger Fidel wrote in response to our question. Fidel thought that things in the United States would be easy to find, at his fingertips.

"And it will be total freedom and peace," he wrote.

Fidel was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has lived in five different countries. Now that he is settled in Boise, he sees that the word "heaven" was an exaggeration. "Things aren't as easy to find as I foresaw, but the freedom and peace part did stay the same."

Khushal Alami, 23, and Khawja Aga Alami, 25

Brothers from Afghanistan who lived for 18 years in India and speak seven languages, Khawja Alami, who goes by Karim, and his brother Khushal had been in Boise for two months and 22 days the day they spoke to BW.

The Alamis thought that America would be a place where they could write their own futures, and so far, they still believe that.

"America's future is a good future," Karim said. "In India there is no good future."

The Alami brothers agree that it is possible to save money in the United States, whereas in India, where they lived as refugees, they lived hand to mouth.

Khushal said there is no crime or bombs in Boise either, another clear benefit.

"Here, life is safe," he said.

Karim also pointed out that all cultures in the United States are given respect.

Isakjon Zokirov, 25

Zokirov arrived in Boise on April 10. Originally from Uzbekistan, he lived near Kiev, Ukraine, before resettling in the United States. Zokirov thought that Boise and all American cities looked like the Las Vegas strip. He also pictured New York or Baltimore, but said through a pair of young interpreters that Boise is more like his homeland: quiet, similar weather and single-story homes, same type of mountains and trees. But Boise has no large outdoor market like in Uzbekistan, the former shop clerk said.

Teame Gbramla, 31

Gbramla always imagined that life in America was simple.

"But when I came, I can see that it is very hard," the Eritrean native said.

Gbramla thought that the United States boasted a surplus of jobs and that anytime he wanted he could change jobs.

He has not found work yet.

Gbramla worked in a church in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before being resettled here.

Danda Subedi, 24

Danda is originally from Bhutan but grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. He knew people who had been to the United States and expected a highly systematic society in which everything runs by rule and regulation and also a high standard of living.

"I thought that I would be in a place of paradise," he said.

But now he says he is suffering from "suffocation in adaptation"--working entry-level jobs and interpreting for many other Bhutanese refugees in their interactions with the hospitals and courts. While he feels safe, has access to technology and, for the first time in his life, is accepted by a nation, he and many of his countrymen are homesick.

"For some of them, it is a different dream than they have dreamed of the United States," Danda said.

Zaid Ibrahim, 30

Ibrahim studied particle physics and helped with Al Jazeera coverage of the war in Iraq. Originally from Basra, where there is no snow, Ibrahim does not mind the cold winters in Boise.

Ibrahim said he admires the U.S. legal system and feels freer here.

Before being resettled in Boise, he felt that America was a strong country, which the world needs. Though, perhaps the world needs a few strong countries, Ibrahim reflected.

His impressions of America prior to moving here: "It's very beautiful, and it's very strong." He has not been disappointed.

Hassan Mbrawa, 70

The United States is a decent place for education and good food and the weather is nice, Mbrawa thought before arriving in Boise four years ago, a refugee from Somalia. He is happy with the pizza in Boise and gives the English Language Center at Boise's Mountain States Group high marks.

Paw Ler Leh, 40, Tu Tu, 56, and Noami Cer, 34

Paw Ler Leh and Tu Tu are from Burma, as is Noami Cer, who goes by Naomi in her English classes. Noami knew all about Abraham Lincoln from her school days in Burma. She learned that Lincoln freed the slaves and tried to eliminate the divide between white and black in America.

Noami also said there was no snow in her homeland.

"It's cold here," she said.