For some, World Refugee Day is like the Fourth of July; others compare it to Christmas or Thanksgiving. For Fidel Nshombo, a delegate to the United Nations Refugee Congress who came to Boise from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo more than 10 years ago, it is more like a second birthday.
“The celebration seems to be something that has replaced our own birthday celebrations,” said Nshombo, who helps organize the events.
Though World Refugee Day is officially June 20, the Boise celebration was scheduled for June 17 with balloons, music, dancing and plenty of food in the newly-reopened Grove Plaza and an international soccer friendly at Ann Morrison Park between refugees from Bhutan and the Congo.
At precisely 11 a.m. on Saturday, a representative of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service office asked 16 adults, who had come to the U.S. from nine nations, to raise their hands. After reciting a 140-word pledge of allegiance, those hands belonged to the citizens of one nation: the United States.
“When you came here today, this was your home. Now, it’s your country,” said Steve Gossett, supervisor at the Boise USCIS office. The new Americans came to Idaho from Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Russia and the Ukraine. Among them was Esther Mukendi from the Congo, who came to Idaho in 2010. In addition to her new citizenship, she was particularly proud of her new dress, which her sister—who still lives in the Congo—sent especially for the ceremony.
“Now I can say I am free. Now I am American,” said Mukendi. “I am African-American.”
Her journey began in 2004, when she, her husband and their five children fled from their village to a refugee camp in Namibia, where they spent six years before being fully vetted by the U.S. government.
“We used to celebrate World Refugee Day in the refugee camps of Namibia, but this is so much more special for me. It’s the end of my program, and I am now a citizen,” said Mukendi. “I am so glad, because it’s a big day for refugees, but I also see so many other people today, happy for us.”
Those “other people” were some of the thousands of visitors to the Capital City Public Market. it’s no accident the World Refugee Day celebration seamlessly integrates into the market..
“We’ve been a part of the Capital City Public Market for several years now. It’s a really great way to meet people where they are,” said Kara Fink, outreach and partnership manager with the Idaho Office for Refugees and another celebration organizer. “We get to reach more people and possibly change more hearts and minds. Plus, we help neighbors meet each other for the first time.”
For Mayor Dave Bieter, the celebration helps define Boise. It isn’t just a big day for new citizens, it’s important to a city that, he says, embraces its diversity.
“We are a city that is made better by new people,” said Bieter, greeting the celebration. “It’s the oxygen that breathes life into our community.”
Moses Muyumbe, originally from the Congo and now an employee at the Boise-based Agency for New Americans, said, “Yes, people get to see the refugees today but more importantly, they get to learn about the refugees’ culture and how they’re contributing to their new community.”
While World Refugee Day is traditionally a colorful and optimistic affair, the 2017 celebration was tempered by a difficult year. The current political discourse on refugee issues and President Donald Trump’s proposal to limit refugee admittance to the U.S has stoked anxiety among refugees in and outside the U.S..
“It means a lot to have this event, but it’s even more important this year because of the adversity and the politics that refugees continue to face,” said Muyumbe. “It has been alarming.”
Fink agrees the current political climate breeds uncertainty among her clients.
“I think that made this year’s celebration even more significant,” she said. “I think a lot of people around the community feel the same way.”
Fink said the concern hasn’t just affected refugees but has also directly affected at least one Treasure Valley organization devoted to assisting refugees.
“We have already seen World Relief close its doors in Boise,” said Fink.
The Boise office was one of a number of World Relief support centers shuttered when the Maryland-based organization announced it was laying off more than 140 staffers. Offices also closed in Florida, Ohio, Maryland and Tennessee.
“America is now less able to help those around the world who need our help the most,” wrote World Relief CEO Tim Breene in a Feb. 16 statement. Breene pointed to Trump’s executive order to suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as the reason for the layoffs.
Meanwhile Fink said despite any national uncertainty, the Idaho Office for Refugees had no intention of curtailing its services anytime soon. In fact, she said events such as World Refugee Day help bridge the gaps between refugees and their new communities.
“We’re hoping events like this will help people feel less threatened, less stressed and more confident in their ability to become U.S. citizens and fully-contributing members of society,” said Fink.
And in the face of that uncertainty, refugees themselves said there’s no shortage of optimism.
“We’re stronger than that. We’re bigger than that,” said Nshombo. “We always hope that the future will be brighter. Tomorrow will be brighter.”
Read more at Boise ‘Made Better’ By Its Newest Citizens.