Why is refugee support higher than you might think in parts of ‘Trump country’
Even amid the global pandemic, Idaho’s unemployment rate hovers around 3%. In the capital, Boise, rental signs are posted at grocery stores, restaurants and at Pete Amador’s home care agency.
His latest ad even offers a thousand dollar signing bonus. Amador could easily hire 50 more people right now, if they applied. There is a long waiting list of elderly customers.
“People are calling every hour for help,” he says.
About 70% of Amador’s caregivers are refugees. He says his business wouldn’t be what it is today without them. First of all, locals usually don’t apply for these jobs. As a Medicaid provider, he can only offer about $ 11 an hour to start. For refugees, this is usually their first job in the United States. They work hard and want to progress, he says.
“Without the arrival of the refugees, it created a shortage for my business and our ability to provide great care to our clients,” says Amador.
President Biden has vowed to lift the 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: predominantly 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 country for per capita refugee resettlement, before Trump significantly lowered annual caps during his first year in office. These states also have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and many employers are reporting worsening labor shortages.
For Pete Amador in Boise, it’s not just an economic crisis. It is also a humanitarian issue. He did not like the dramatic cuts in the resettlement of refugees.
As the demographics change, Idaho is still 82% white. When Amador started hiring refugees ten years ago, some of his clients were skeptical. But it slowly evolved into acceptance.
“In home care, we are dealing with older people who grew up in a different time with a different understanding, and we have to show a lot of patience and respect for that,” says Amador. “It’s been kind of a challenge, but also an honor to help be part of their transition of their thinking.
Refugees from more homogeneous rural areas are often forced to take on two roles: a day job as an elderly caregiver, grocery store clerk or small business owner, while serving as a cultural ambassador and bridge builder.
From bathroom cleaner to business owner
This is the world of Bahar Shams. In 2019, she and her sisters opened an Afghan bakery and specialty cafe and saffron tea.
Sunshine Spice Cafe sits along a bustling suburban thoroughfare dotted with fast food chains, big box stores, and a collection of taco trucks and other newer international grocery and grocery stores.
When they opened before Christmas that year, Shams said some in the community were complaining about receiving a government document.
“Because it’s not easy to open a business, especially a women’s business, and we are refugees from different countries,” Shams says. “But when we told them our story, they accepted us.”
Their story is incredible.
The four sisters and their parents fled Afghanistan and the terror of the Taliban, first in Iran, then finally through the United Nations refugee agency, they were placed in Idaho in 2005.
They had never heard of Idaho. They didn’t speak English and the sisters had never even been to school. But Shams says it was a dream of his parents that their daughters would one day be educated.
“Once someone has the passion for something, the language or the new country, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do something, you will be successful if you work hard at it, ”Shams says.
And they did.
The sisters eventually graduated from high school and went to Boise State University. Bahar first wanted to be a filmmaker to tell the stories of Afghan women. It didn’t work, she says, but she was still passionate about finding a way to support Afghan farmers, especially widowed women, by buying saffron and tea and selling them to the United States. This plan eventually evolved into the Sunshine Spice Cafe.
Initially, Bahar Shams did not get any loans. Most of it was funded on more than 20 credit cards, which she paid off while working as an early morning housekeeper.
“A few years ago I cleaned the bathroom in the store, but now I’m a business owner,” says Shams.
Their business is doing well with expansion and even franchise plans. Most of their clients are Americans.
Homeyra Shams, another sister who is a criminal justice graduate and whose art is now for sale on the cafe walls, said stereotypes that predominantly white Idaho was not welcoming to refugees tended to be exaggerated.
“They really like refugees, they [the customers] who are here, “she said.” They come, they support us. ”
Idaho’s long history of resettlement
There are resettlement success stories all around Boise, from new Afghan, Iraqi and Nigerian food stores, to a refugee-owned medical supply company, and several doctors recertified to practice in their new country.
Boise consistently ranks in the top 10 for refugee resettlement per capita in U.S. cities. Rates had also increased in Idaho’s other resettlement city, Twin Falls, until President Trump took office. Since then, there has been an 80% drop in refugee resettlement in Idaho, which is troubling for Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho nonprofit office for refugees.
Wolfson said Idaho has a long history of welcoming people. Initially, the work was supported by local churches.
“Refugees have been coming here since 1972,” says Wolfson. “There is certainly a connection with the values of Christianity in Idaho to welcome the foreigner.”
More recently, Idaho’s reputation has been for conservative right-wing politics. Hateful calls to relocation offices like his happened often during Trump’s day. But Wolfson noticed that most of them came from outside the cities where the refugees were actually resettled.
Today her phone still rings a lot, but now it comes from desperate companies and employment agencies – sometimes up to five times a week.
President Biden’s promise to raise the cap this year to 62,500 is encouraging for aid workers in Idaho, but it is generally believed that the actual number this year will not be as high. They recognize that it will take time to reassemble all the systems that have been dismantled in the past four years.
“I really believe that as a country we do better when we welcome people,” says Wolfson.
Fear in refugee communities
But some refugees said they were concerned about the lasting damage caused by all the racism that has come to light in recent years. Luma Jasim and her family relocated to Idaho after fleeing Baghdad in 2008. Last year she told them they would have to move to another state if Trump was re-elected.
She noticed as she walked along popular cycle paths and in other areas, the generally friendly faces of some people changed. There was less “hello” and “how are you” from friendly strangers, which is typical of rural states like Idaho.
“People are increasingly encouraged to express their hatred to refugees. And it is a state with weapons, everyone has weapons, ”says Jasim. “We don’t have any weapons.”
Jasim works as a graphic designer. She is also a successful painter and artist who divides her time between Boise and New York, where she obtained her Masters degree from the prestigious Parsons School of Design.
Even before the Trump era and the rise of hate rhetoric towards refugees, Jasim says things never felt so secure when she left downtown Boise. There, the ubiquitous “Welcome Refugees” bumper stickers are starting to give way to pickup trucks where America First and Don’t Tread on Me flags are now more and more common.
“I don’t want, after everything we’ve been through, and all the wars, for my brother or anyone to end up in a very stupid accident, just because, I hate it,” Jasim said.
Still, she said she and her family actually had no plans to leave now. Living and working in a conservative America actually helped his art and his understanding of America. Jasim also hopes he will continue to change mindsets and stereotypes about who refugees really are.