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Boise, Idaho, A Global Home for Refugees

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Rita Thara stands outside of her apartment complex in Boise, Idaho. Rita is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and has lived in Boise for three years. Her mother, Veronique is the cousin of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former military dictator of Zaire.

When photographer Angie Smith visited her parents in the picturesque northwestern town of Boise, Idaho, approximately five years ago, she had no idea how it would lead to a future photography project. While she was there, Smith began to notice a growing presence of refugees in Boise.

Boise has a surprisingly large number of refugees from Bhutan, Sudan, Somalia, and more. Smith says that she would often see refugees walking to and from the grocery store, laundromat, or other common places in town.

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Patrick and Derek Seale Bakwa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand in the neighborhood of their adopted parents’ home in Boise. They moved to Boise six years ago. As children, they were left to fend for themselves in Kinshasa after both of their parents died.

“Idaho is one of the last places you’d expect to see refugees,” she says. “There’s a visual contrast between the backdrop of Boise—which is a mix of beautiful, lush outdoor locations and classic suburban new developments—and these refugees, many of whom wear traditional clothing.”

To Smith, this seemed like an ideal photo story. But she didn’t expect the roadblocks she’d encounter. Smith started reaching out to organizations in Boise but had little luck in making solid connections.

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Sar Bah Bi is a refugee from Burma who moved to Idaho five years ago. She met her husband, a refugee from Somalia when she was a junior in high school. They fell in love despite the fact that they were both just learning English—the only language they could communicate in. They are now married and have started a business selling their own produce at the Capitol City Farmer’s Market in downtown Boise.

“Refugees’ lives are very sensitive, and some of them could be in danger, so a lot of the organizations wanted to keep their lives private,” she says. “Even back then I knew it was going to be a really important project.”

Discouraged by her inability to gain access to the communities in Boise, Smith stopped pursuing the project and went on with her life.

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Rita Thara stands in the foothills of Boise’s East End. Rita is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has lived in Boise for four years. When civil war broke out in 1997 she almost lost her life fleeing Kinshasa. Rita’s father was shot and killed by militia. Rita started a fashion business called Thara Fashion in Boise.

A year or so later is when a breakthrough came. Smith tore her MCL on a skiing trip and returned to Boise to recover. While she was there, she met a Congolese refugee named Rita, and the two became fast friends.

Rita opened doors for Smith that had previously been closed, and Smith began the slow and time-intensive process of building relationships with many of the individual refugee communities. According to Smith, the Congolese community in particular is robust, and she says that they are some of the most welcoming people she’s encountered.

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Tito Ndayishimiye is a 21 year old filmmaker who has lived in Boise since he was 11. He was born in Rwanda and moved to Tanzania to live in a refugee camp for 10 years until his family was sent to Boise. He works full time at a call center during the day and runs his own thriving filmmaking business on this side.

Smith says that she began to offer the refugees the opportunity to have a formal family portrait taken, something that many of them would not have had access to before. With the help of a writer named Hanne Steen, she also began interviewing her subjects after photographing them to document their story.

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Alfonse stands outside of her apartment building in Boise, Idaho wearing a dress that she designed and sewed. Alfonse moved to Boise eight years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We would not only talk about their past, but their present lives, what it was like to adjust to life in America, what it’s like to live in Idaho, how they envision their future and how that has changed,” she says. “There’s an almost emotional and spiritual exchange that happens. After I photograph someone, they become my friend. I’ve gotten to know the most incredible people through this process.”

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Khamisa Fadul sits in her kitchen with her children while she studies for her nursing program. Khamisa is a refugee from Sudan who has lived in Boise for eight years. She works at a local sporting goods company and also has her own business importing and selling Sudanese crafts.

She says that at the time, refugees didn’t dominate the news the way they do today. Few people understood their plight and struggles or even understood the concept of being a refugee.

Smith says that she wanted the portraits to show the contrast between Boise’s surroundings and the distinct style of each refugee.

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Sonia Ekemon adjusts her head wrap in the front yard of her home in a suburb outside of Boise. Sonia is a former refugee from Togo. She has lived in Boise for 18 years and is now an American citizen. She has worked full time in several local Boise hospitals but recently realized her dream of opening her own hair-braiding business.

“I think people often have this perception that Idaho just has potatoes and white supremacists, along with a few other stereotypes,” Smith says. “I wanted to highlight the beauty of Idaho, but I also try to photograph the refugees wearing some article of clothing that they used to wear in their home country. I want the pictures to be a real representation of who they are.”

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Burmese twins Paw Lah Say and Paw Lah Htoo on their 25th birthday, less than a month after arriving in Boise. After fleeing persecution in Burma, they lived in an enclosed refugee camp in Thailand for 13 years.

For Smith, who is currently raising money through Kickstarter to fund future iterations of the project, this project has also been incredibly rewarding on a personal level.

“Every aspect of working with the refugee community has brought me joy and a greater sense of connection and community,” she says. “My hope is that people will feel that same sense of inspiration and heart expansion. I want it to bring people together and change people’s perceptions of refugees. I want the pictures to show the diversity and the incredible contributions that the refugees are making to the Boise community. I want people to invite refugees into their lives.”

To support Angie Smith’s work on refugees in Boise, donate to her Kickstarter project.


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