Asmaa Albukaie, a Syrian Muslim refugee, arrived in Boise with her two teenage sons about 18 months ago. There was a more welcoming spirit then, she recalls.
Syria “wasn’t under a spotlight, like now,” she said. “But now I think people are more scared about refugees.”
And not just scared. In February, her younger son, 16, was assaulted in Downtown Boise. His assailant allegedly asked whether the boy was Muslim.
A Nampa man was arrested and charged under Idaho’s hate crime law. His trial is pending.
Later, her son asked: Should he have lied about his background?
“I said, ‘No. Why do you have to lie?’ He said, ‘Because I’m not safe now if I tell people I’m a Muslim,’ ” Albukaie recalled. “I said, ‘No, you have to say you are Muslim, and you have to be a good Muslim to let people like you.’ ”
She pushed her son to get an after-school job to fill his time. His social life isn’t what it was before the attack.
“To build a new life here is not easy, especially for young people,” she said. “At this age, a teenager — everything changed in his life in one day.”
Albukaie works as a case manager for the local resettlement agency that assisted her when she first arrived. The impact of her son’s attack came back to her Tuesday following news that a made-up tale of a rape in Twin Falls had circulated on social media.
The false story alleged that Syrian refugee boys had raped a young girl at knifepoint. The actual incident bore only faint resemblance to the accusation. The case involves juveniles and is thus mostly sealed from public disclosure. But police and prosecutors disclosed enough detail to refute the rumors.
Resettlement records show there are no Syrian refugees in Twin Falls, and just a few dozen in Idaho overall. Only one Syrian has come to Idaho since last September, an elderly woman in poor health who joined family in Boise. She has since died. The previous year, 35 Syrians were resettled in Idaho, all in Boise.
From October through May, 536 refugees have been resettled in Idaho, a little more than 1 percent of the more than 41,000 that have come to the U.S. in that period.
Twin Falls has seen Idaho’s greatest tumult over refugee resettlement. Opponents have sought unsuccessfully to close the College of Southern Idaho’s refugee program. Albukaie has visited the city on her own “just to see how people react with a refugee.”
The reaction has not been warm.
“Other people don’t really smile and they’re scared,” she said. They’ve also turned away, fallen silent, cursed.
“Maybe it’s our problem. Maybe we don’t know how to deal with American people. I’m trying just to fix and solve the problem,” she said. “Because I need peace for this country. For me, America is now my country, so I need peace too. So I need to be safe with my kids, and I need safety for my neighbors, for American people.”