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for people who care about the West

The newest Westerners

 

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

It was right about the time that my teeth sank into the Basque BLT (marinated pork loin, bacon, the works) that I had my epiphany. OK, maybe the timing wasn't quite that serendipitous, and maybe it was less an epiphany than the culmination of a gradual thought process. But still.

Last September, I sat in one of Boise, Idaho's many Basque restaurants with HCN executive director Paul Larmer and Boise Weekly city editor Nathaniel Hoffman. I had never been to Boise, and just a few hours after arriving, I was still getting acclimated. My preconceived vision of the city, and I suppose of all of Idaho, was of homogenous whiteness with all the cultural vibrancy of mashed potatoes.

As many of you know, I was wrong. Though Boise is 92 percent white, it is culturally and ethnically alive. There's an entire Basque block downtown, Micron Technology draws a diverse, international workforce, the local Jewish temple is the oldest west of the Mississippi, and Boise is home to the Trey McIntyre Project, a world-class dance company.

But what surprised me most was Hoffman's description of Idaho's growing refugee population. Their numbers aren't substantial; some 800 refugees settle here each year. But they have brought noticeable changes to the community. It's not uncommon to shop alongside African women in native garb at the grocery store. Boise has an Islamic center and hookah bars, and the Boise Weekly has "The Grip," a blog devoted to the city's "burgeoning global culture." This strange new world reshapes refugees' lives, as well. This October, Fbm Fidel Nshombo wrote on "The Grip:"

I still remember my first winter very well because I was falling down twice or more daily. ... Now it's winter again. This just means one thing for me, I won't see my friends for three months. While Americans spend their days outside playing in the snow, my fellow Africans and I will be hiding inside our houses with heaters on high, covered in double blankets watching TV land.

The phenomenon is echoed elsewhere: Salt Lake City, Tucson, Denver. Shortly after I visited Boise, word of Somali refugees and their struggle to commemorate Ramadan at a Greeley meatpacking plant hit the news. Quite often, refugees bring cultural color to towns that could use it. But it's not just happy multicultural rainbows, either for the newcomers or the communities that receive them. Refugees sometimes displace undocumented workers -- who themselves displaced native workers -- at places such as meatpacking plants. They strain the already struggling social welfare systems. "Populationists" say there are already too many people here, and the influx just increases environmental destruction. Refugees, who survived brutality, oppression and even torture in their homelands, confront greater challenges than cold and snow once they get here -- many face racism and xenophobia, both openly on the streets and anonymously in the online forums of local news sites.

By no means is this just a Western phenomenon. But the revelation that hit me in Boise is this: The impacts, both positive and negative, are more strongly felt here, because the West is younger, and more impressionable. Newcomers have always left their imprint on the West, but these arrivals come from unexpected places. In this issue of High Country News, we introduce you to some of these folks: the Newest Westerners.

More refugee stories:

Refugees unsettle the West
In Greeley, Colorado, a meatpacking plant observes Muslim traditions such as Ramadan while multicultural refugees adapt to the West's very different landscape and culture.

An orphan heads to college
Chan Kuoth's journey has taken him from Sudan to Tucson, Ariz., where he hopes to help other refugees.

A hard-fought immigration victory
Valentina Kabinov's family, Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, fought for years to stay in the U.S.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

A new kind of ministry
Tom Simbo, who faced down gun-toting soldiers in Sierra Leone, now works with other immigrants in Denver, Colo.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

More than English
The Emily Griffith School has taught English to immigrants and refugees since its Language Learning Center opened in 1981. Using creativity, games and encouragement, the school also offers an orientation to U.S. culture and workplace protocol.

“I like America”
Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.