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Refugees look for belonging in Idaho

The Twin Falls resettlement program continues to thrive in the face of recent serious challenges.

One afternoon in early September, Niyonshuti Claude, a 16-year-old sophomore, sat in an empty classroom at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, wrestling with a history homework question: “What was Francisco Vázquez de Coronado trying to find in the southwestern part of the U.S.?” The 16th century Spanish conquistador explored Mexico and the Southwest U.S., seeking the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. 

Claude flipped through his textbook, American Vision, cracking his knuckles, overwhelmed by the amount of information on the pages before him. His tutor, Lexie Cottle, offered a suggestion: “You want to look for key words.” But there were so many that Claude didn’t know — words like “canoe” and “colony” — that sometimes Cottle struggled with how to help him without just giving him the answer.

 

Claude is one of Cottle’s best students, bright and studious, with a charisma that comes through in his style — diamond studs and a white headscarf. He told me, grinning, that he wears it “just for fashion,” even though he’s convinced his teachers it’s a religious garment.  

That Claude is even in this classroom is a small miracle. A little over two years ago, he was living with his parents and six siblings in Uganda, a refugee from Congo. Attending school there was expensive and difficult. For 25 years, the family waited for the United Nations to process their application for resettlement. Finally, they were accepted in Twin Falls, an agricultural town of roughly 50,000 in south-central Idaho. 

Niyonshuti Claude’s family waited 25 years for the U.N. to process their resettlement application.
Drew Nash for High Country News

FOR NEARLY 40 YEARS, the Twin Falls Refugee Center has helped resettle thousands of refugees like Claude and his family here in Idaho’s “Magic Valley,” the high-desert area around Twin Falls. They come from some of the world’s worst dictatorships and war zones — places like Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Iraq and Eritrea — often speaking no English and with little education. Almost without exception, they’re economically self-sufficient within eight months — the time they’re eligible for federal assistance — generally by securing jobs in agriculture, the industry that drives Idaho’s economy. 

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/49.6/refugees-in-conservative-communities]

Despite its success, the program has faced serious challenges in recent years. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a militia group backed by conspiracy-minded media outlets like Breitbart News Network tried to smear it by drawing attention to a local sexual assault case involving three boys from Sudan and Iraq. Many of the story’s details turned out to be wrong, but the headlines lingered, turning some locals against the resettlement program.

Since then, the Trump presidency has overseen record cuts to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (which encompasses the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, as well). Previously, the Twin Falls Refugee Center had helped resettle about 300 refugees every year, but today it is now bringing in less than half that number and operating with less than half its former budget of $1.5 million.

Federal cuts to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program have forced more than 100 of the nation’s 325 local resettlement offices to suspend services or shut down altogether. But despite the rising xenophobia in many parts of America, the Twin Falls Refugee Center is now stronger than ever, with more private donations and prospective volunteers than it can handle. Given all the challenges it faces, how has the Twin Falls program continued to thrive?

As director of the Twin Falls Refugee Center, Zeze Rwasama helps ensure that every refugee that arrives to the town is economically self-sufficient within eight months.
Drew Nash for High Country News

THE TWIN FALLS REFUGEE CENTER, which is affiliated with the College of Southern Idaho, has been around since 1980. That’s the year Congress passed the Refugee Act, a bipartisan bill that instituted the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, a network of religious organizations and independent agencies that work with the U.S. State Department to help newly arrived refugees settle into American communities.

Today, the Twin Falls Center occupies a nondescript white building in the industrial part of town. When I visited in September, a box of donated clothes sat in the entryway of the building. The center has been overwhelmed by such donations since the 2016 election. “Before Trump, we used to see maybe 25 volunteers per year,” Zeze Rwasama, the Refugee Center’s director, told me. “Now we have over 200 coming here asking to help.”

Rwasama, who was originally a refugee from Congo, has a warm, unassuming demeanor. He described how the Refugee Center helps ensure that every refugee who arrives in Twin Falls is economically self-sufficient within eight months. Step one: Learn enough English to get a job. Step two: Learn how to drive — a necessity in Twin Falls, which has no public transportation. Refugees then have to learn how to pay utility bills (the Center finds them apartments to rent prior to their arrival), enroll their kids in school, access medical care, pay taxes.

None of this is easy. Many of the people Rwasama helps have spent years in refugee camps, where they’re unable to work and forced to rely on the U.N. for food and shelter. Although most resettlement centers are located in bigger cities, Rwasama believes a community like Twin Falls offers surprising advantages for refugees. In some ways, it’s easier in a small town — you can get to know your neighbors quickly — while the many dairies and food manufacturers around Twin Falls offer ample job opportunities. And the cost of living is low enough that many refugees are able to buy a home within a few years. 

[GALLERY:1]

FOUR YEARS AGO, Rwasama realized that the program’s success was beginning to spark local resentment, much of it encouraged by anti-refugee groups. Some people grumbled because refugees managed to buy cars so soon after arriving, and maybe even a house within two years. “They think we’re handing government money to refugees who were using it to buy all this expensive stuff,” Rwasama told me. But a refugee who arrives as a single adult in Idaho receives just $382 per month from the federal government to cover rent, utilities and food until he or she gets a job, followed by two months of transitional payments before the assistance stops. That process must occur within eight months, at which point refugees are expected to be financially independent.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.18/books-a-denver-high-school-welcomes-the-worlds-refugees]

The truth is, the refugees’ unfamiliarity with the American way of buying on credit and accumulating debt enables many of them to achieve what seemed impossible to many locals. Most refugees spend only what they can afford in cash and save the rest, said Rwasama. Some locals blamed refugees for keeping wages low — Idaho’s minimum wage is still only $7.25 per hour — even though, on average, refugees in Twin Falls earn $10.84 an hour.

A movement to shut down the center started in 2015, when the local paper reported that Twin Falls was preparing for an “influx” of Syrian refugees, even though the center had never settled (and still hasn’t settled) any refugees from Syria. Outside groups, including the Three Percenters, a militia group, latched onto the information and began spreading conspiracy theories about the program. “Is it a plan being driven by the (Obama) White House to colonize rural Idaho with ‘diversity’?” wrote Ann Corcoran, a Maryland-based author of the now-defunct website Refugee Resettlement Watch. “Note,” she added, “that new mosques are popping up!”

In response, the center started an outreach campaign to educate people in Twin Falls about what the Resettlement Program actually does. In time, people came to realize that a lot of the rumors were simply not true.

Kayla Garn teaches English at the First Presbyterian Church. Though the Twin Falls community once started a movement to shut down the refugee center, public opinion has changed towards the refugees.
Drew Nash for High Country News

AS MORE PEOPLE LEARNED ABOUT THE CENTER, community support for refugees in Twin Falls surged. Before the 2016 election, Rwasama had sometimes struggled to find enough volunteers; now he had more than he needed. Kayla Garn moved to Twin Falls from northern Idaho in 2016. At the time, the 26-year-old new mother was struggling to make friends and adjust to a new home. Then something on Facebook caught her eye: a request for volunteers to teach English to refugees. “I was looking for something to get outside myself,” she told me. Her family in Boise opposed it, terrified that Garn was going to get “blown up.” They got the idea from false stories on Fox News about terrorists coming from the Middle East disguised as refugees.

Garn ignored them and started teaching English as part of a state-funded program that caters to elderly and female refugees. As she got to know the women, she started getting invited to family dinners. She celebrated holidays she’d never even heard of before and though she and her pupils didn’t always understand each other, they learned to laugh about it. “I’ve learned so much about people,” she told me. Eventually, even her family came around. In fact, once they realized their fears were unfounded, they started donating to the Twin Falls Refugee Center.

Kayla Garn’s daughter plays with other children while her mother teaches.
Drew Nash for High Country News

IN LATE SEPTEMBER, the Trump administration announced plans to further cut the number of refugees who can be resettled in the U.S. from 30,000 to 18,000, the lowest ceiling a president has placed on the refugee program since its creation in 1980. (Since the 18,000 number is a cap, not a requirement, the administration can resettle even fewer if it chooses to.) That hurts, Rwasama told me. Until 2017, the U.S. led the way in refugee resettlement. Now, at a time when the world’s refugee population is growing — over 24 million people, only a fraction of whom will be resettled — “America is choosing to help less.”

Claude couldn’t help but worry: What if he was sent back to Uganda? That was not going to happen, but growing up as a refugee, he was accustomed to the feeling of never belonging.

Still, despite America’s changing political climate, Claude has begun to feel at home in Twin Falls. He now has a part-time job busing tables at a local restaurant, and he excels at math — so much so that Cottle enlisted him as a student mentor to help with her thrice-weekly tutoring sessions for refugee students at Canyon Ridge High School. When Claude graduates, he hopes to become a contractor, building houses and schools. And he wants to stay in Twin Falls, which has what he values more than anything: peace.

Niyonshuti sits on the porch with his little brother.
Drew Nash for High Country News

Note: In a previous version of this article we incorrectly stated that Twin Falls’ local paper falsely reported that the town was preparing for an “influx” of Syrian refugees. The paper did report the facts available to them at the time, even though the Syrian refugees didn’t arrive as expected. We apologize for the confusion.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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