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Why Support For Refugees Is Higher Than You Might Think In Parts Of 'Trump Country'

The Sunshine Spice Cafe, which opened in Boise, Idaho, in 2019, is one of several Afghan refugee-owned businesses in the area.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
The Sunshine Spice Cafe, which opened in Boise, Idaho, in 2019, is one of several Afghan refugee-owned businesses in the area.

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Idaho's unemployment rate has been hovering around 3%. In the capital city, Boise, for-hire signs are posted at grocery stores and restaurants — and at Pete Amador's home health care agency.

His latest ad even offers a thousand-dollar signing bonus. Amador could easily hire 50 more people right now, if they would apply. There is a long waitlist of elderly clients.

"People are calling hourly asking for help," he says.

About 70% of Amador's caregivers are refugees. He says his business would not be what it is today without them. First of all, locals don't usually apply for these jobs. As a Medicaid provider, he can offer only around $11 an hour to start. For refugees, though, it's usually their first employment in the United States. They work hard and want to move up, he says.

"Without the refugees coming in, it has created a shortage for my company and our ability to provide great care to our clients," Amador says.

President Biden has promised to lift a 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: largely 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 nation in per capita refugee resettlement before President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the annual caps in his first year in office. These states also have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, and many employers are pointing to worsening labor shortages.

For Amador in Boise, this isn't just an economic crisis, however. It's also a humanitarian one. He hasn't liked the dramatic cuts in refugee resettlement.

While demographics are changing, Idaho is still about 82% white. When Amador first started hiring refugees a decade ago, there was skepticism among some of his clients. But that slowly evolved toward acceptance.

"In home care, we're dealing with elderly people who grew up in a different time with a different understanding, and we need to show a lot of patience and respect for that," Amador says. "It's been somewhat of a challenge but also an honor to help be a part of them transition their way of thinking."

Refugees in more homogenous, rural areas are often forced to take on dual roles: a day job as a caregiver to elderly people or grocery clerk or small-business owner, while at the same time serving as a cultural ambassador and bridge-builder.

From bathroom cleaner to business owner

This is Bahar Shams' world. In 2019, she and her sisters opened an Afghan bakery and specialty coffee and saffron-tea shop.

Sunshine Spice Cafe sits along a busy suburban thoroughfare dotted with fast-food chains, big-box stores and a collection of taco trucks and newer international groceries and delis.

When they opened before Christmas of that year, Shams said some in the community complained that they were getting a government handout.

"Because it's not easy to open a business, especially woman's, and we're a refugee from different country," Shams says. "But when we told our story to them, they accepted us."

Their story is incredible.

The four sisters and their parents fled Afghanistan and the terror of the Taliban, first to Iran; then eventually through the United Nations refugee agency, they were placed in Idaho in 2005.

They'd never heard of Idaho. They spoke no English, and the sisters had never even attended school. But Shams says it was a dream of her parents that their daughters would one day be educated.

"Once someone has a passion to do something, language or new country, it doesn't matter. If you want to do something, you will be successful if you work hard on it," Shams says.

And they did.

The sisters ended up graduating from high school and going to Boise State University. Shams initially wanted to be a filmmaker to tell the stories of Afghan women. That didn't work out, she says, but she was still passionate about finding a means to support Afghan farmers, especially widowed women, by buying saffron and tea and selling those in the United States. That plan eventually evolved into the Sunshine Spice Cafe.

Shams initially didn't get any loans. Most of the business was financed on more than 20 credit cards, which she paid off while working as a cleaner early mornings.

"A few years ago, I was cleaning the bathroom at the store, but now I'm a business owner," Shams says.

A lunch of traditional Afghan dumplings washed down with saffron green tea, using ingredients from Afghan farmers.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
A lunch of traditional Afghan dumplings washed down with saffron green tea, using ingredients from Afghan farmers.

Their business is doing well, with plans to expand and franchise even. Most of their customers are not Afghan Americans.

Homeyra Shams, another sister who graduated with a criminal justice degree and whose art now hangs for sale on the cafe walls, said stereotypes about predominately white Idaho not being welcoming to refugees tend to be overblown.

"They actually do love refugees. They're [the customers] that are here," she said. "They come. They support us."

Idaho's long history of resettlement

There are resettlement success stories everywhere around Boise, from the newer Afghan, Iraqi and Nigerian food shops to a refugee-owned medical supply company and several doctors getting recertified to practice in their new country.

Boise routinely ranks in the top 10 for per capita refugee resettlement in American cities. Rates had also been climbing in Idaho's other resettlement town, Twin Falls, until Trump took office. There has since been an 80% drop in refugee resettlement in Idaho, which is troubling to Tara Wolfson, director of the nonprofit Idaho Office for Refugees.

Wolfson said Idaho has a long history of welcoming people. Initially the work was buoyed by local churches.

"Refugees have been coming here since 1972," Wolfson says. "There's definitely a connection to the values of Christianity in Idaho of welcoming the stranger."

More recently, Idaho's reputation is one of hard-right conservative politics. Hate calls coming into resettlement offices like hers happened often during the Trump era. But Wolfson noticed most of them came from outside the towns where refugees were actually being resettled.

Today her phone is still ringing a lot, but now it's from desperate companies and employment agencies — sometimes up to five times a week.

Biden's pledge to raise the refugee cap this year to 62,500 is encouraging to Idaho aid workers, but it's widely thought that the actual number this year won't be nearly as high. They acknowledge it will take time to put back together all the systems that were dismantled over the past four years.

"I really believe as a country we do better when we welcome people," Wolfson says.

Fear in refugee communities

But some refugees said they're worried about lasting damage from all the racism coming out in the open in recent years. Luma Jasim and her family resettled in Idaho after fleeing Baghdad in 2008. Last year, she told them they'd have to move to another state if Trump was reelected.

Walking along popular bike paths and in other areas, she noticed some people's usually friendly faces changing. There were fewer "hellos" and "how are you doing?" from friendly strangers, which is typical in rural states like Idaho.

Boise artist Luma Jasim and her family resettled in Idaho in 2008 after fleeing war in Iraq.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Boise artist Luma Jasim and her family resettled in Idaho in 2008 after fleeing war in Iraq.

"People are encouraged more and more to express their hate to refugees. And this is a state with guns — everyone has guns," Jasim says. "We don't have guns."

Jasim works as a graphic designer. She's also a successful painter and artist who splits her time between Boise and New York, where she got her master's from the prestigious Parsons School of Design.

Even before the Trump era and rise in hateful rhetoric toward refugees, Jasim says things never felt that safe when she left the center of Boise. There, the ubiquitous "Refugees Welcome" bumper stickers start giving way to pickups where "America First" and "Don't Tread on Me" flags are now increasingly common.

"I don't want, after all what we went through and all the wars, to have my brother or anyone to get in a very stupid accident, just because, hate," Jasim says.

Still, she said she and her family actually have no plans to leave now. Living and working in conservative America has actually helped her art and her understanding of the United States. Jasim also hopes it will continue to change minds and stereotypes about who refugees really are.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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