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Seeking safety after war-torn pasts, refugees become citizens and are 'reborn' in Boise

After being forced from their homes, 20 refugees become American citizens in Boise

On June 23, 2018, 20 refugees from around the world underwent a citizenship ceremony in Downtown Boise. The ceremony was held publicly in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which took place June 20.
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On June 23, 2018, 20 refugees from around the world underwent a citizenship ceremony in Downtown Boise. The ceremony was held publicly in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which took place June 20.

Though she couldn't necessarily voice it, Wafaa Alwan's smile told an entire story.

Alwan spent the first 45 years of her life living in Iraq, much of it in war-torn Baghdad. Her husband was tortured and murdered as she and her family were forced to listen to his screams on the phone, said her daughter-in-law, Dhuha Ali.

After her husband's death, Alwan sought refuge. After an initial stop in Jordan, she wound up in Boise in 2013, joining the rest of her family, including her two sons, who also are refugees.

On Saturday, Alwan was able to look forward rather than back, as she and 19 others became United States citizens at the World Refugee Day Celebration at The Grove Plaza in Downtown Boise.

Alwan's sons looked like parents at a high school graduation Saturday morning, taking pictures of the latest family member to graduate into a better life.

Speaking through her daughter-in-law, Alwan said she knows that becoming an American citizen won't bring back her husband. But it is a step in refilling her heart and soul.

As she spoke to Ali in her native Arabic, Alwan wore a smile that looked like a mix of relief, reflection and joy.

“I feel like it replaced a huge thing that I lost and missed in Iraq," Alwan said, according to Ali. “What I lost in Iraq was huge and very painful. I’m very happy I restarted my life in my new country, my new home.”

On June 23, 2018, 20 refugees from around the world underwent a citizenship ceremony in Downtown Boise. The ceremony was held publicly in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which took place June 20.

World Refugee Day has been celebrated worldwide on June 20 since 2001, and in Boise since its inception, according to Kara Fink, outreach and partnership manager for the Idaho Office for Refugees. A public citizenship ceremony has taken place for almost a decade.

The 20 refugees taking part in Saturday's ceremony were a range of ages and came from from seven countries: Iraq, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Rwanda, Bhutan and Eritrea.

The path to American citizenship involves civics lessons and an infamous test many U.S. natives might struggle to pass. But more difficult than a test is having to wait five years to take it.

Ali arrived in the United States in 2009 after her stop in Jordan. It took an additional four years for her mother-in-law. Now that each is a citizen, the family can share its version of the American dream.

“It feels like you achieved something, when we’re finally reunited. Because we lost that feeling back in 2006 when I actually left Iraq.," Ali said. "It's a huge, huge step."

Saturday's festival was a scene of scents and visuals. Tables selling traditional (and bright) African garb sat arm's length from fresh-made chow mein, dumplings and kebabs. On the corner of one table was a set of five Matryoshka dolls, lined up from tallest to shortest. At another were small quilted designs, one of which read, "Blossoming." On the ground was a sign: " No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor."

But at 11 a.m. sharp, the festivities paused, so that Alwan and her fellow recipients could take the oath. Holding small American flags, their dreams, often decades long, were realized.

At a time when immigration is a thorny topic, partly because of ongoing reform, ceremonies and festivals such as Saturday's serve as a reminder to those who already have the luxury of citizenship: Feeling protected is not something to be taken for granted.

By definition, a refugee is one who flees their homeland, often to escape persecution, war, gang violence or something else. They are forced to leave their lives behind in search of refuge.

Patient Mwembo, 29, fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he thinks of home, the first word that comes to mind is "destruction." All he ever knew was war.

Mwembo currently works as a caregiver and part-time taxi driver. He has dreams of someday attending Boise State.

"My country, since I was born, up to now, we just have war," Mwembo said. "“Today was one of my dreams. Today it becomes a reality. I’m happy, and I know we’re going to push America forward to make it greater.”

More than 23,000 people have resettled in Idaho from 60 different countries since 1975, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees.

According to data from the New American Economy, foreign-born residents contributed $1.8 billion to Ada County's gross domestic product, $109 million to federal taxes, and $49.6 million to state and local taxes in 2016. Immigrants earned a total of $638 million in 2016 as well.

Refugees and immigrants are weaved into the fabric of Idaho's history.

"At a time where we have more refugees than we remember in our lifetime, I think it's important to remember the plight," said Fink. "It's an opportunity to provide education on that and break down stereotypes about them.”

Fardowsa Musa is one of more than 20,000 students at Boise State. She hails from Somalia on Africa's eastern coast, another country decimated by ongoing war. Musa, 29, just finished her associate's degree and plans to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Not everyone has been accepting of her, Musa said, but for the most part, the Boise community has been kind.

"I'm flying in the sky," she said after the citizenship ceremony. "When you get an American citizenship, you can feel like you are free.”

That freedom is why Saturday's ceremony participants chose to become citizens rather than keep Lawful Permanent Resident Status. Refugees may obtain many of the rights of a citizen a year after first being admitted to the United States, including employment and property ownership.

But being a citizen means something more to Alwan, Mwembo and Musa, they said. It's more than an identification card, a piece of paper or an American flag. It's a sign of change, of moving forward to something better.

Of hope.

“I feel like I’m reborn today," Alwan said. "It’s a beginning of a new life, and of course that means a new responsibility to protect my new country.”

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