Stories from refugees that found their home in Boise

Illustration by Sydney Smith

Boise, Idaho, accepts one of the largest amounts of refugees each year in the nation. Since 1975, the city has accepted over 30,000 refugees. Now, refugees have become an integral part of Idaho’s culture, economy and position on the international stage. 

“America is my dream…”

Shadi Ismail is one of the thousands of refugees who found their home in Idaho. Ismail fled Syria after his family learned of his sexuality. According to the NGO Equal Rights Trust, in Syria, attitudes toward differing sexual orientation is highly stigmatized and the law penalizes homosexual acts with up to three years in prison. When Ismail’s father found out about his sexuality, he burned his arm.

Ismail fled to live with his mother for a time before his family found him. After fleeing a second time, he lived on his own while he sought refugee status in the United States. Ismail waited three years to be granted refugee status. After being beaten by three men on the street, Ismail was approved and settled in Boise. 

“Some people wait seven years, eight years. They still went in for the interview,” Ismail said. “So I believe I’m very lucky.”

Ismail got a job just 15 days after settling in Boise. A translator from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) took personal time to join him in the interview. 

“The gentleman kept asking me, ‘Do you know how to vacuum? Do you know how to wipe?’ And I kept saying, ‘Yes! Yes!’” Ismail said.

While working as a cleaner, office workers staying late would sometimes teach him English words. From there Ismail taught himself how to read, write and speak English fluently. 

Ismail soon picked up a second job, as surviving on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 was difficult. On his way to the interview, Ismail stopped to help a man unloading produce outside the business. 

The man turned out to be the owner, and Ismail was hired on the spot. Now, he works as a sanitation supervisor for CS Beef Packers. Outside of work, he also volunteers at the IRC as a translator to help new refugees find their place in Boise. 

“I work food classes, share culture this way. Sharing stories. I do a human library,” Ismail said. “I do what I can to put my stamp on life, live in my own life and give to the community, the beautiful community.”

 Ismail says he has felt welcomed and supported by his community. Ismail said the only time he has felt unwelcome was when he was in line for a hot dog, and a man in line said, “We don’t serve AIDs here.”

Despite the homophobic comment, Ismail said the response of his friends and other customers who kicked the man out of line only made him feel more encouraged and supported. 

While those in Idaho, and oftentimes other Arabic refugees, may initially be skeptical of Ismail because of his sexuality, he noted that many people changed their views after getting to know him. Participating in Boise Pride and seeing more acceptance from organizations like the IRC, which has recently included workshops on how to better help queer refugees, has made him feel at home. 

“America is my dream,” Ismail said. “I love the culture actually. Brokeback Mountain was the best movie I ever watched about gay community and to see those big actors doing it, I heard about the freedom you can be yourself. And from there that made me want to be here. And I’m glad I did.”

Ismail has reconnected with his mother and siblings. Ismail believes that people who are hateful are crying out for love, and that they should be treated with love and kindness. 

“Our community makes it more colorful, more diverse…”

Belma Sadikovic, EdD, content and curriculum coordinator for American Association for Academics, moved to Boise when she was just 16. In 2000, her family was fleeing the war in Bosnia, and after escaping to Germany, they sought somewhere else to live permanently.

[Illustration of suitcase covered with stickers.]
Illustration by Sydney Smith

“The resettlement procedures at the time were very different,” Sadikovic said. “In the early 2000s, the concept of refugees was still fairly new.”

When she was young, the refugees in Boise were mostly from Bosnia, but over the years the refugee population has grown, now including refugees from nearly every continent. Sadikovic feels welcome in Boise for the most part. She said the forced nature of her resettlement contributed to the want to stay in Boise and make a home. 

“The reason why people choose to stay in their origin of where they are resettled, most likely is because they’re just trying to continue their life,” Sadikovic said. “They’re just trying to move on and you know, continue their life.”

Support from other Bosnian refugees has been a key factor for Sadikovic and her family staying in Boise.

Refugees bond over shared experiences and help each other find jobs and other resources. According to Sadikovic, the increasing rent and cost of living has disproportionately affected refugees. They often have to work multiple jobs for less money, while trying to learn a new culture, language and way of living.

“You’re trying to integrate as best as you can into your new surroundings because the whole point is you do want to be a contributing member of the society,” Sadikovic said. “In fact, when you speak to a refugee, that’s their entire thing. They’re so grateful to be able to resettle and  get a chance at their new life.”

The instability and constant movement Sadikovic experienced while in her teens made it difficult to have access to education. However, Sadikovic persevered, and she now has a Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. Her research focuses on refugee women’s access to higher education. 

“It’s really hard when there’s no strategic support,” Sadikovic said. “Especially for the refugee resettlement agencies. They are very ill-equipped with funding. A lot of them rely on volunteers.”

Sadikovic believes the mentality that refugees are a liability is harmful and uniformed. Sadikovic has seen refugees at every level of leadership and society, with the common theme of a desire to give back. 

“There are many refugees who have become very successful employers, who now employ many members of the community,” Sadikovic said. “We need to get rid of the stigma that a refugee is here to leech or take away. If we provide a springboard for success, then the refugee population is there to contribute in different ways.”

Sadikovic believes that removing barriers to education for refugees and changing how refugees are framed can help people realize that refugees just want the same things everyone else does — to be able to live their lives and feel like they belong. 

“I feel that our community makes it more colorful, more diverse, and it doesn’t mean that we’re taken away. They contribute by being teachers, educators, nurses, doctors, government officials,” Sadikovic said. “They let people know that it is okay to be different. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings.”

“Different people, different attitudes…”

Hana Mutlak, originally from Baghdad, Iraq, comes from a family of store owners and bakers. It has always been Mutlak’s dream to own a store, and in Boise, she has made that dream a reality. She owns a grocery store of her own, Foodland Market, where she offers goods from all around the world. She says her goal is to bring a new experience to people in Boise.

“Everytime you come in there is something new,” Mutlak said.  

Mutlak intentionally sells these goods for lower prices than if they were to try to import themselves. 

“We want everyone to test our food. It doesn’t matter if it has high profit or less profit as much as we are selling more even for our community,” Mutlak said. “It’s really cheap, and we are always doing sales or an offer and something like that. Make it affordable for everyone.”

Mutlak considers Boise her home, but she was unsure of the city when she first arrived. Mutlak had never heard of Boise, and compared to Baghdad, Boise is “just a village.” 

Initially, Mutlak wanted to be in bigger, busier cities, such as Chicago or somewhere in California. She also wanted somewhere with a larger Arabic community. After her daughter graduated high school, she traveled with her family to California, where she encountered a very different environment and culture from Boise. 

“It was really different people, different attitudes, than here. Downtown was scary different than here, so I came back. Then I said, ‘Okay, let me go to Chicago,’ then Chicago. It’s the same thing,” Mutlak said. “Then in the end, I decided to stay here. I bought my house. I have an art business. So I really like it.”

Mutlak has received support from her community since opening. One customer even drives for an hour to get products from her store. 

Mutlak appreciates the support of the community, but believes that refugee business owners could benefit from more guidance on how to use social media to help promote their businesses. 

“Our customers come through mouth sharing the word,” Mutlak said. “So they’re really supporting us.”

“I want to say thank you for America, and especially for Idaho…”

Kibrom Milash and his family resettled in Boise 10 years ago. Since then, he founded his own restaurant, Kibrom’s, where he sells a variety of delicious Ethiopian and Eritrean food. 

Milash’s father was Eritrean, and his mother was Ethiopian. He lived with his family in Ethiopia until his father was deported back to Eritrea. His family followed his father back to Eritrea, but because of Eritrea’s harsh dictatorship, his family ended up in refugee camps in Ethiopia. In 2013, they resettled in Boise. Milash ran a restaurant while he was in the refugee camp, and continued to pursue a career as a restaurant owner and chef in Boise. 

“I grew up in a business family. I was helping my father in his store. I love to cook,” Milash said.  “I love to share what I like to eat with people, and even my wife is the same. She’s the best cook. Actually I learned from her.”

Despite the fact that there are only around 50 families from Eritrea and Ethiopia in Boise, Milash received support from local refugee resettlement agencies, as well community members who supported him by giving him a car. 

“We were getting a lot of help from the community and from the agencies, so that made it easy for us,” Milash said. “But just if it was by ourselves, it honestly would’ve been very hard.”

According to Milash, there was not always enough food to go around in the refugee camps. He had to cook food with charcoal, but in Boise, he enjoys a full kitchen and offers a menu of nearly 40 different food items. 

Milash plans to stay in Boise. He shared that he loves the peace and safety but believes people in Boise can do more to help refugees. While he was able to find work quickly, many are not as lucky and are forced to relocate again. 

“It will be good if they ask the person if they need something to see instead of just waiting for the refugee person [to ask],” Milash said. “So for example, if I need something from you, it might be shameful for me or it might be hard for me to ask for someone.”

The adjustment to the “customer is king culture” has been an adjustment for Milash. According to Milash, it is different from the culture in Ethiopia and creates added pressure to be perfect when preparing food and dealing with customers.

Despite this, Milash believes Boise is a great city to raise a family in. 

“It’s peaceful and the people are very nice,” Milash said. “I just want to say thank you for America and especially for Idaho and the community of Boise.”

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