Emotions ran high June 23 as 20 refugees from 12 different nations became new U.S. citizens with family and supporters looking on, along with a few hundred of their new new friends.
"What you have just accomplished is something that millions of people all around the world wish they had," Robert Mather, district director of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the new Americans. "And the best thing about all of this is that you never have to come see us again."
After swearing in the new citizens, Mather urged them to register to vote.
"But don't just vote because you can," he said. "Understand the issues. Get involved in your communities."
The ceremony, which capped two hours of singing, dancing and poetry from around the world, had an added plus: Hundreds of Treasure Valley residents who had made their way to Boise's Saturday market happened upon the celebration, which packed the Grove, part of World Refugee Day.
"When they ask you who you are, you tell them, 'I'm an American,' Mather told the new citizens.
An elderly gentleman wiped his hand over his tear-filled eyes as Mather reminded the crowd, "It's the pursuit of happiness and not the guarantee," that is being offered to Boise's new Americans.
The teary-eyed gentleman, Alberto Dominguez, came to the United States from Cuba and said it has been his dream to be a United States citizen for the past 22 years. Sitting next to Dominguez was his wife, Maria Dominguez from Mexico, who also became a new citizen on June 23.
“It’s one more dream in the United States, our whole family is here; it is very wonderful,” said Maria.
The area surrounding the Grove stage was filled with dozens of onlookers and ethnic booths. Vendors sold food, jewelry, housewares and more from a myriad of different countries. The smell wafting from a nearby booth selling African sambusas, a savory pastry, drew a steady stream of customers while dancers showcased moves from their native countries on stage.
Though it was a day for celebration, Mather was quick to remind the crowd that many refugees endure gut-wrenching experiences before coming to the United States. The process of acclimating to a new community and culture, and oftentimes learning a new language, is an added challenge on top of the grueling test required to gain citizenship. With the oldest new American receiving his citizenship certificate at 80-years-old, the accomplishment was nothing short of inspiring.
Fidel Nshombo, who came to Boise in 2006 after surviving the conflict in Congo, and much, much more, was honored with a U.S. flag from the U.S. Capitol at Boise City Hall Tuesday.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter gave Nshombo the flag to commemorate his citizenship and his achievements as an advocate for other refugees in the region.
The flag was provided by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo.
*Editor's note: Nshombo contributed to Boise Weekly's blog The Grip, which was paid for by a diversity grant from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Read his work on The Grip.
Boise's 10th World Refugee Day happened Saturday at the Grove. Among the festivities, 31 refugees became naturalized American citizens.
Three young teenagers peddle down the side of Camelsback Hill, boldly careening across the lower end of the park. They dismount and greet their companions with looks of accomplishment and satisfaction back at the Bear Camp, the greetings are returned with warm cheers of approval and further camaraderie.
Bear Camp is a one-of-a-kind event, where refugee children—many coming from war ravaged countries—are taught bike lessons and led through trails or area streets. At the end of the week long camp, the children are given a free bike with basic riding gear. More importantly, the kids are able to develop common bonds with other refugees through the shared experience of sport.
This year's camp had 29 participants, from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo and Iraq, and roughly 40 working volunteers. Volunteers do everything from event organization to teaching the kids how to ride. James Lofthus volunteers as a trail guide. On Aug. 11, he and his group road 9.5 miles worth of dusty trail through Boise's foothills.
"You get to see these kids who, in their backgrounds, may not have had the opportunity to even have fun. So it's nice to get them out here where they can have a great time, while teaching them a skill they can use for the rest of their lives," said Lofthus.
A new addition to this years event was an educational curriculum in which the kids were taught environmental responsibility, trail and street safety, how to change a tire, and other basic bike maintenance.
"It's exciting to watch, some of the kids are doing really rough trails," said Ellen Albus, refugee youth coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, an organization involved in the planning of Bear Camp.
"It's incredible, kids who have barely been on a bike are doing advanced rides by day two or three, they're fearless," said Mark Dale, marketing director for the event.
One of the participants, Henry from Thailand said, "It's been fun, we've been riding all around and doing jumps." Henry said he'd learned a lot, and that he looked forward to coming back next year.
The other kids echoed his positive sentiments—the camp was filled with bright faces and ear-to-ear grins. Soe Reh, also from Thailand said, "It's been very fun, I look forward to having my own bike now."
The camp is funded by community donations from businesses and individuals. George's Cycles, Bikes 2 Boards, and others all donated bikes, gear, and time to the event, while local riders Team Exergy donated all of the helmets. In total, it costs about $175 per child and the event relies heavily on community support for operation, they're already accepting help for next years camp.
Ann Morrison Park, usually occupied with Frisbee golf players or joggers on a Tuesday morning, was bustling with more than 100 rambunctious refugee children for the “One World Soccer Camp”, a program that uses the sport to unite refugee communities in Boise. Many of the children, who range from 5 to 18 years old, come from different countries, speak different languages and wear different clothing. But for four days, they have one thing in common: soccer.
Boise High School senior Atticus Hoffman, son of well-known producer Michael Hoffman (The Last Station), is the face behind the successful program. Hoffman says he has always been a "soccer head" and started the program when he was just 14 years old.
“One day my dad came back from the YMCA and said, ‘You know, I saw all these refugees being shown around today’, and I got to thinking about it,” Hoffman said. “When I pitched it to the Agency for New Americans, they were really responsive and said, ‘If you can get this together, we can bring you kids.’ So I got on my bike and I rode around talking to everyone locally and getting donations.”
The four day program, which provides soccer clinics, organized games, food and transportation free of charge, depends on community support from Idaho Rush Soccer Club, Full Circle Exchange, Agency for New Americans, Boise Coop, Boise Parks and Recreation, Idaho Youth Soccer Association and Port of Subs. Idaho Rush Club provides coaches and volunteers to help teach the kids how to play.
Atticus notes that because he will be graduating from Boise High, next year will probably be his last. However, he hopes to continue to be involved in it.
“I always make really good friends at the camp,” Hoffman said. “Some come all four years, and we also always see a lot of new faces.”
Idaho Rush Soccer Club has been involved from the very beginning, providing coaches and volunteers to teach the children the sport. It was the first time sponsorship coordinator Dave Rucklos had been out to physically see the camp.
Sponsorship coordinator Dave Rucklos, who has been actively soliciting financial support for the last eighteen months, notes language barriers do not get in the way of the children’s fun, stating that soccer is a “common denominator”.
“It is a sport played worldwide. I mean, soccer is everywhere, and the World Cup really helped illustrate that,” Rucklos said. “What’s impressive to me is the kids pick English up just like that, it just seem to come so easy.”
The camp recently received a $10,000 grant from Consumer Financial Solutions by producing a 30 second YouTube video. The organization received over 120 submissions statewide, and Hoffman’s film was one of five films selected. His father, Michael Hoffman, may have had a hand in helping produce the film, which was filmed by Andy Lawless. Hoffman laughs when admitting they produced the film in 2 and a half days, saying “Usually it takes me a bit longer to make a film.”
Some of the grant money will be used to encourage the participants to continue to play soccer throughout the year, by waiving the registration fees for recreational soccer programs through the Idaho Rush Soccer Club.
Yasmin Aguilar, coordinator for community resources at the Agency for New Americans, has been responsible for reaching out to refugee groups to get them involved in the program, which includes getting liability forms signed and organizing transportation shuttles to Ann Morrison Park organized with Boise Parks and Recreation. Aguilar says the program helps refugee youth adjust to their new environment and make new friends.
“Most refugees are coming from the war zones and the only thing they remember is the fighting, which is an unhealthy battle,” Aguilar said. “To bring all these refugee kids here together to play soccer, I think that’s a healthy battle. They compete against each other, but it’s healthy.”
Idaho's refugee population grew by 20 percent between August 2008 and August 2009. Aguilar said she has seen countless friendships made at the camp, such as “a kid from Afghanistan meeting a kid from Congo, or an Iraqi meeting a kid from Bhutan.”
“We want them to learn to respect each other, understand each other and also to learn we are all different, but we are the same.”
This week's story from Sadie Babits about mental health and Idaho's growing refugee population started as a three-part radio series.