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  • May 9, 2016

Boise, Idaho, A Global Home for Refugees

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.

Picture of two refugees in Boise, Idaho
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.

Picture of a woman refugee from Burma in Boise, Idaho
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.

Picture of a refugee woman in Boise, Idaho
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.

Picture of a Rwandan refugee in Boise, Idaho
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.

Picture of a Congolese refugee at an apartment complex in Boise, Idaho
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.”

Picture of a Sudanese refugee family in Boise, Idaho
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.

Picture of a woman refugee from Togo in Boise, Idaho
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.”

Picture of Burmese refugees in Boise, Idaho
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.

There are 31 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. guest100
    August 2, 2016

    Boot them out! Let them work, fight, sacrifice and die in their own country – they made it what it is today. We neither need nor want them; you can’t move on our freeways now. And these ‘refugees’ are the invaders that STEAL from our disabled and citizens. I’ve seen it firsthand for the last 30 years in ERs and hospitals. They receive not equal, but preferential treatment, over our own disabled who live in pain 24/7.

  2. Chic
    June 4, 2016

    I lost faith in NG back in the 90s with their article on Boise Idaho with pictures of a skyline from the 70s…Midwest town? And again you are so off base…what articles like this fail to reveal is that we have the worst education record..infrastructure that is sorely lacking and a mayor the hasn’t met a developer yet he hasn’t slept with…I resent these glossy articles that mean nothing more than to attract the masses that ruin the very thing that these marketing articles create…I’m a native…I’ve seen this glut firsthand…stop it!

  3. Silas S
    May 23, 2016

    Time magazine cover stories have illustrated a truth often neglected, that not all people are able to obtain American citizenship.

    On the contrary, Sir Albert Einstein obtained citizenship in America.

  4. Brenda Bacon
    May 21, 2016

    As an Australian, I only wish the politicians here showed the same compassion and humanity towards refugees as the people of Boise have done. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying goes, and the positive outcomes for both refugees and residents of Boise seems pretty apparent. Such a shame that other countries such as mine continue to demonise refugees. Great article.

  5. dd
    May 20, 2016

    Don’t mean to be negative here, but from my point of view (I’m of an Asian immigrant background currently living in Australia) what is the point of singling out refugees by taking photos of them posing in the middle of Boise? If the purpose of the project is to draw people’s attention to the plight of refugees shouldn’t it be done to show the environment and conditions in which they suffer due to war, persecution or whatever it may be? To put them now under spot light after they have already moved to and settled in a (almost) perfectly safe and affluent country, that is singling them out as a minority and different to the people they live amongst. The captions for the images tell a moving story of how well these immigrants have assimilated and integrated into this new country, yet the photographs tell a different, contrasting story.

  6. Rexford L.
    May 20, 2016

    My problems with these immigrants, are exactly what President Roosevelt said over 100 years ago.

    “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
    Theodore Roosevelt 1907

  7. Deanna
    May 11, 2016

    Wonderful story and beautiful photos!

  8. Kendall
    May 10, 2016

    Thank you for this article! Being from the Boise area and now teaching at school school made up predominantly of refugees in Washington, I love seeing these families thriving wherever they end up.

  9. Charles Chappell
    May 10, 2016

    Americans went to the Congo first,as missionaries to convert, as the CIA to counter communist influence, and as contractors (Morris Knudsen) to construct and as miners to withdrawminerals AND NOW YOU WANT TO SHUT THE DOOR ON CONGOLESE COMING HERE!

  10. KD
    May 10, 2016

    This is wonderful. I have mixed feelings living in this very conservative state (as evidenced by Joe’s horrible racist comments). This makes me feel better about living in Boise.

  11. Eric
    May 10, 2016

    Had the same idea years ago and found the same roadblocks. So glad Angie took on this project. Well done!

  12. Jaron Bass
    May 10, 2016

    @Mary Grace, the correct word to use for those that are from Boise is Boisean, not Boise-anite…. Also, a simple correction is all that is necessary. Idaho is in the Pacific Northwest. Point made. No need to attack the author.

  13. Joe
    May 10, 2016

    Americans are waking up. This madness will end when Trump becomes president. No one from Somalia or the Congo belongs in Idaho or anywhere in the US or Europe. And the reverse is also true. I don’t belong in Somalia or Congo, and if I went to those places and tried to settle and ask for government help, everyone there would help me understand immediately that I don’t belong there.

  14. Silas S
    May 10, 2016

    If Kickstarter-like crowdsourcing sites fail to make “creators” out of people who have sought refuge but do not possess Permanent Residence, they should largeheartedly take into account the actual sense which Angie’s project tries to convey so that creativity might not be thwarted at a period when support could mean everything.

  15. Andrea blomquist
    May 9, 2016

    This is a beautiful project. Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories of these amazing people

  16. Keri
    May 9, 2016

    These are beautiful pictures and the stories that make these people refugees are often so very heart wrenching. I am glad you are telling also the good news about successful jobs and businesses they have started.

  17. Jessie
    May 9, 2016

    Beautiful photography project. I volunteer with refugees as much as I can and I always appreciate that they maintain their Style even after being in Boise for a long time. It was also nice to read their stories of where they came from this is something that we just don’t know after they arrive. I would love to volunteer if you need help with any future projects 🙂

  18. K10
    May 9, 2016

    Beautiful pictures. But perhaps for me, being a person of color in a large, multicultural city in the US, I really don’t see so much of a contrast between the “backdrops” and what the refugees are wearing. Their attire and the neighborhood (together) looks normal to me.

  19. Mary Grace
    May 9, 2016

    Boise is not the mid-west. As a proud Bois-ianite, I am offended deeply by the generalization of my proud state. We are bold. We are blood-magic. And we are IDAHO!!!!!

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  20. Daniel
    May 9, 2016

    I’m a Boise native and I love this article. Good to see some positive attention in this regard. Just letting you know Boise is a Northwestern town, not Midwestern.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  21. ShelBailey
    May 9, 2016

    Lovely photographs, interesting project! But (and I would think Nat’l Geographic would know better), Boise is not in the midwest. It’s only about an hour from the Oregon border. It is West, almost Pacific Northwest. And, Boise is a city. For real. Not huge, but definitely bigger than a “town”.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  22. L
    May 9, 2016

    Just a factual note: Boise isn’t located in the Midwest—it’s in the Pacific Northwest.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  23. James
    May 9, 2016

    Heads up, Idaho is not in the midwest, Consult your atlas National Geographic…

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  24. Conor
    May 9, 2016

    Wonderful project. I would like to point out that Boise is in the Northwest, not the Midwest. This is surely just minor geographic ignorance on the author’s part but all Boiseans will notice this inaccuracy in the first sentence of this article.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      May 9, 2016

      Thank you, I have made this correction.

  25. Sara
    May 9, 2016

    Midwestern town? Please. Idaho is considered to be in either the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West, depending on who you ask. Get your geography right, National GEOGRAPHIC.

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