Why Support For Refugees Is Higher Than You Might Think In Parts Of ‘Trump Country’
Even amid the global pandemic, Idaho’s unemployment rate has been hovering around 3%. In the capital city, Boise, for-hire signs are posted at grocery stores, restaurants, and at Pete Amador’s home health care agency.
His latest ad even offers a thousand dollar signing bonus. Amador could easily hire 50 more people right now, if they would apply. There is a long wait list of elderly clients.
“People are calling hourly asking for help,” he says.
About 70% of Amador’s caregivers are refugees. He says his business would not be what it is today without them. First of all, locals don’t usually apply for these jobs. As a Medicaid provider, he can only offer around $11 an hour to start. For refugees though, it’s usually their first employment in the U.S. They work hard and want to move up, he says.
“Without the refugees coming in, it has created a shortage for my company and our ability to provide great care to our clients,” Amador says.
President Biden has promised to lift a Trump-era cap on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States. And there are signs of growing support for refugees in unlikely places: largely rural, conservative states where the former president and his far-right immigration policies were popular.
Idaho, Nebraska and North Dakota often ranked at the top of the nation in per-capita refugee resettlement, before Trump dramatically reduced the annual caps in his first year in office. These states also have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and many employers are pointing to worsening labor shortages.
For Pete Amador in Boise, this isn’t just an economic crisis, however. It’s also a humanitarian one. He hasn’t liked the dramatic cuts in refugee resettlement.
While demographics are changing, Idaho is still about 82% white. When Amador first started hiring refugees a decade ago, there was skepticism among some of his clients. But that slowly evolved toward acceptance.
“In home care, we’re dealing with elderly people who grew up in a different time with a different understanding, and we need to show a lot of patience and respect for that,” Amador says. “It’s been somewhat of a challenge, but also an honor to help be a part of them transition their way of thinking.”
Refugees in more homogenous, rural areas are often forced to take on dual roles: A day job as an elderly caregiver or grocery clerk or small business owner, while at the same time serving as a cultural ambassador and bridge-builder.
From bathroom cleaner to business owner
This is Bahar Shams’ world. In 2019, she and her sisters opened up an Afghan bakery and specialty coffee and saffron tea shop.
Sunshine Spice Cafe sits along a busy suburban thoroughfare dotted with fast food chains, big box stores and a collection of taco trucks and other newer international groceries and delis.
When they first opened before Christmas of that year, Shams said some in the community complained that they were getting a government handout.
“Because it’s not easy to open a business, especially woman’s, and we’re a refugee from different country,” Shams says. “But when we told our story to them, they accepted us.”
Their story is incredible.
The four sisters and their parents fled Afghanistan and the terror of the Taliban, first to Iran, then eventually through the United Nations refugee agency they were placed in Idaho in 2005.
They’d never heard of Idaho. They spoke no English and the sisters had never even attended school. But Shams says it was a dream of her parents that their daughters would one day be educated.
“Once someone has a passion to do something, language or new country, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do something you will be successful if you work hard on it,” Shams says.
And they did.
The sisters ended up graduating high school and going to Boise State University. Bahar initially wanted to be a filmmaker to tell the stories of Afghan women. That didn’t work out, she says, but she was still passionate about finding a means to support Afghan farmers, especially widowed women, by buying saffron and tea and selling it in the U.S. That plan eventually evolved into the Sunshine Spice Cafe.
Bahar Shams initially didn’t get any loans. Most of it was financed on more than 20 credit cards, which she paid off while working as a cleaner early mornings.
“A few years ago, I was cleaning the bathroom at the store, but now I’m a business owner,” Shams says.
Their business is doing well with plans to expand and franchise even. Most of their customers are Americans.
Homeyra Shams, another sister who graduated with a criminal justice degree and whose art now hangs for sale on the cafe walls, said stereotypes about predominately white Idaho not being welcoming to refugees tend to be overblown.
“They actually do love refugees, they’re [the customers] that are here,” she said. “They come, they support us.”
Idaho’s long history of resettlement
There are resettlement success stories everywhere around Boise, from the newer Afghan, Iraqi and Nigerian food shops, to a refugee-owned medical supply company and several doctors getting recertified to practice in their new country.
Boise routinely ranks in the top 10 for per capita refugee resettlement in American cities. Rates had also been climbing in Idaho’s other resettlement town, Twin Falls, until President Trump took office. There has since been an 80% drop in refugee resettlement in Idaho, which is troubling to Tara Wolfson, director of the nonprofit Idaho Office for Refugees.
Wolfson said Idaho has a long history of welcoming people. Initially the work was buoyed by local churches.
“Refugees have been coming here since 1972,” Wolfson says. “There’s definitely a connection to the values of Christianity in Idaho of welcoming the stranger.”
More recently, Idaho’s reputation is one of hard right conservative politics. Hate calls coming into resettlement offices like hers happened often during the Trump era. But Wolfson noticed most of them came from outside the towns where refugees were actually being resettled.
Today her phone is still ringing a lot, but now it’s from desperate companies and employment agencies — sometimes up to five times a week.
President Biden’s pledge to raise the cap this year to 62,500 is encouraging to Idaho aid workers, but it’s widely thought the actual number this year won’t be nearly as high. They acknowledge it will take time to put back together all the systems that were dismantled over the past four years.
“I really believe as a country we do better when we welcome people,” Wolfson says.
Fear in refugee communities
But some refugees said they’re worried about lasting damage from all the racism coming out in the open in recent years. Luma Jasim and her family resettled in Idaho after fleeing Baghdad in 2008. Last year, she told them they’d have to move to another state if Trump was reelected.
She noticed while walking along popular bike paths and in other areas, some people’s usually friendly faces changing. There were fewer “hellos” and “how are you doing” from friendly strangers that is typical in rural states like Idaho.
“People are encouraged more and more to express their hate to refugees. And this is a state with guns, everyone has guns,” Jasim says. “We don’t have guns.”
Jasim works as a graphic designer. She’s also a successful painter and artist who splits her time between Boise and New York, where she got her masters from the prestigious Parsons School of Design.
Even before the Trump era and rise in hateful rhetoric toward refugees, Jasim says things never felt that safe when she left the center of Boise. There, the ubiquitous “refugees welcome” bumper stickers start giving way to pickups where America First and Don’t Tread on Me flags are now increasingly common.
“I don’t want, after all what we went through, and all the wars, to have my brother or anyone to get in a very stupid accident, just because, hate,” Jasim says.
Still, she said she and her family actually have no plans to leave now. Living and working in conservative America has actually helped her art and her understanding of the United States. Jasim also hopes it will continue to change minds and stereotypes about who refugees really are.
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