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Boise's thriving international refugee community


Thirteen-year-old Sajjad Alswaeidi seemed timid when he spoke about home on a sunny summer day in Ann Morrison Park. He rocked back and forth, staring at the ground as he talked about coming from Iraq in the summer of 2013 and what it's like adjusting to being in Boise, which he described as a calm, quiet place "with rules."

The adjustment to Boise has been easier for Alswaeidi than for his parents. He said English is easy for him to learn and he picked it up quicker than his parents.

"I do help them a lot. I have," Alswaeidi said. Maybe his transition has been easier because he participates in programs not offered to adult refugees, like the Boise International Summer Camp.

Twice each summer, the camp, founded in 2012 by Boise Parks and Recreation and the Idaho Office of Refugees, takes two dozen kids—half American-born, half refugees—and brings them together for two weeks, every weekday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. It costs $150 per child, with scholarships available, and participants take trips to places like the Discovery Center and the Natatorium. And they are encouraged to share their histories, cultures and languages.

The 2014 summer program included kids from Guatemala, the Congo, Nepal, Thailand, Colombia, Kenya and China. Camp organizers say the goal is for U.S.-born students to help refugee kids integrate into the culture and learn about opportunities Boise offers for children.

Amaya Gambrell, 11, is short-haired and contemplative. She's a student at the International Sage School, and she joined the summer camp to meet refugee children and show them her hometown.

"I would really like to go around the world and meet people around the world, so I was excited for this," she said. "I think it's neat how there's different ways to communicate with people."

According to the Agency for New Americans, 600 refugee children have come to this area since 2011. That has put a stress on school districts, because most of the kids don't speak English and need special attention. But those who work with refugee populations underscore that these new arrivals are part of the future fabric of Boise—especially the children, who will grow up to become homeowners, business owners and voters. Still, more refugee students means more work for local educators.

"We kind of figure they're more than one student, because their needs are so high," said Jolene Lincoln, federal programs consultant and English language learner advocate at the Boise School District.

She said the school district receives a refugee school-impact grant to help shoulder the costs of hiring more teachers devoted to teaching English.

Hillside Junior High and Borah High School offer bridge programs for refugees and non-English-speaking students: Instructors teach the same subjects as other grades, like life science and math, but do so in a more visual way with more opportunities to practice English.

"I always tell these kids, 'You all have a story that the world needs to hear,'" Lincoln said. "'Don't be quiet. Tell your story.'"