Idaho has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is the grandson of Basque herders and has spoken forcefully about the value refugees and immigrants deliver. “Refugees enrich our city,” he wrote in a highly personal column in the Idaho State Journal. “They are some of the hardest working Boiseans.”
Idaho has been reaching out to modern-day refugees since 1975, when then Governor John Evans established the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program. About 20,000 refugees have settled in Idaho since. Working with these new Americans is an eclectic mix of secular and faith-based groups, government agencies and non- profits, retirees and college students.
Before the coronavirus hit, Boise was a place where you’d find Mormon, Lutheran, and secular volunteers tutoring Muslim refugees in a synagogue. Methodist and non-denominational volunteers worked together in reading and tutoring programs for refugee children in junior and senior high school. Retired C-suite executives ran economic incubators that not only gave refugees a way to make money but also help them learn English and integrate with the community. Funding came from sources as varied as Zion Bank—the Latter-Day Saints’ bank–and the Idaho Arts Commission.
This has changed with the corona virus. Like most other states, Idaho is under a state-wide stay home order until the end of April.
Like so many, refugee families have been hit with job losses, so Glocal Community Partners, which supports refugees, has been mobilizing volunteers. Nick Armstrong, who heads Glocal with his wife, Laura, has been delivering donated groceries to families. Glocal has partnered with IRC to deliver hygiene kits — shampoo, dish soap, deodorant, tooth brushes, tooth paste, soap, razor, shaving cream, toilet paper–to families. They’re also delivering necessities like diapers and wipies to families with toddlers and babies. Recently, 13 volunteers delivered these kits to 90 families. Families are getting face masks as well.
Glocal and its network of volunteers are also working with families over the phone to help them apply for unemployment.
Boise’s shift in helping refugees in a pandemic shows how refugee resettlement volunteer networks are both flexible and resilient, illustrating the power of grassroots organizations to effect change in their own backyards.