Despite resistance by Idaho’s top political leaders, at least 118 Syrian refugees have moved to the Gem State in the past year, all of them settling in Boise, according to new data from the State Department.
Compared with larger cities, Boise took in a disproportionate share, accepting more than twice as many refugees as New York, with nine, and Los Angeles, with 45, combined.
No one’s more excited to welcome the newcomers than Shadi Ismail, 29, who left Syria in 2012 and ended up in Boise.
“It’s good, very good news — people coming in, being safe now,” he said. “They will have life.”
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While the new refugees are fleeing Syria’s civil war, Ismail feared his family would kill him for being gay. He decided to leave his homeland after his father and brother burned him with charcoal, trying to rid him of his homosexuality.
“Here in America, you don’t have to be afraid,” Ismail said. “You walk in the street and nobody will kill you because of whatever religion you are or because you’re gay.”
Overall, the United States had admitted 11,469 Syrian refugees as of Sept. 9, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
While the resettlement effort got off to a slow start, the Obama administration has now exceeded its goal of taking in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by Sept. 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year.
Washington state admitted 150 of the refugees, most of them landing in Spokane and Seattle.
But no state took in more Syrian refugees than California, with 1,300. San Diego accepted more than half of them, or 690, while Sacramento ranked second among cities, with 240.
In Idaho, Syrians make up more than 11 percent of the 1,048 refugees who’ve moved to the state from all countries this fiscal year.
Officials said Boise’s relatively low cost of living and long reputation as a welcoming location had been a big draw for the Syrian refugees, who have resettled in 231 cities and towns across the U.S.
“Places like New York and L.A. are sometimes harsh environments to place people into, “ said Jan Reeves, the director of the Idaho Office for Refugees in Boise.
Like all refugees, he said, the Syrians have tackled big challenges — often learning a new language and how to navigate in unfamiliar surroundings — with few connections. But he said, “The experience has been very positive for most.”
“Syrians are experiencing the same adjustment as anyone else would and are working hard to get a start on a new life in America,” Reeves said. “It’s always a daunting experience for refugees to come to a new place and start over with nothing.”
Julianne Donnelly Tzul, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Boise, said most of the Syrian refugees had been recent arrivals who faced a “whirl of appointments,” including medical checkups, finding apartments and signing leases, looking for jobs and getting Social Security numbers, school tours and enrollments, cultural orientation and language screening, and updating immigration records.
“The first few weeks are full of both an intense number of tasks and appointments and, frankly, shock,” she said.
Asmaa Albukaie, a Syrian refugee and a single mother who moved to Boise two years ago with her two teenage sons, said the adjustment had been complicated by politics, especially Republican Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the country temporarily amid fears they’d not been properly vetted.
“He’s giving a wrong idea,” she said. “And if he will be the president of the United States, how come he doesn’t read? How come he doesn’t know we have the paperwork? We come legally.”
Albukaie, 33, said she no longer watched American television because Syrians routinely were shown as terrorists and members of the Islamic State.
“I hate TV because it gives me bad energy, especially political stuff and news,” she said. “We are normal families that just need a safe place. We’re not coming here to fight and we are not coming here to destroy the country.”
Obama’s plan to admit the refugees set off an immediate firestorm, with critics fearing that terrorists would sneak into the country by exploiting screening gaps.
Last November, after a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Paris, many Republicans urged Obama to halt the resettlement after revelations that one of the bombers had a Syrian passport.
Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter wrote a letter to the president, saying the program needed review and that “frustration with the federal immigration and refugee program runs high” in his state.
Otter won unanimous backing from Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation, with Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador calling for suspending the program.
Reeves said the opposition from Republicans in Congress represented a noticeable shift in recent years: “The support that was once largely bipartisan has virtually disappeared.”
But he said local support had grown: “My experience has been that as the people of Idaho meet and get to know refugees from all over the world, including from Syria, they develop admiration and respect for fellow human beings who share their values of freedom, family and opportunity.”
On Sept. 1, Democratic Boise Mayor David Bieter saluted the city’s decades-long embrace of newcomers in his 2016 State of the City address, showing a video of refugees and noting that “many of the most loyal and authentic Boiseans weren’t born here or even in the U.S.”
NATIONS THAT SENT THE MOST REFUGEES TO IDAHO FROM OCT. 1, 2015, THROUGH SEPT. 9, 2016
Democratic Republic of Congo… .454
Syria ….. . ….118
Iraq ….. . …100
Bhutan ….. ..81
Afghanistan … ..58
Somalia ….. .51
The remainder of the 1,048 refugees came from Burma, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan and Ukraine.
Source: State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; Office of Admissions Refugee Processing Center