Event Offers A Rare Glimpse Into Life For Boise Refugees

Sep 18, 2014

International Rescue Committtee (IRC) Executive Director Julianne Donnelly Tzul (far right) pictured with some IRC staff.
Credit Jodie Martinson / Boise State Public Radio

If you've wondered what life is like for Boise refugees, a local organization has put together a unique event offering a rare chance to walk in the shoes of a new Idaho refugee.

The International Rescue Committtee (IRC) Executive Director Julianne Donnelly Tzul says attendees at Thursday night's event will be given an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to adjust to life in Idaho after coming from areas of the world that are in conflict or where they faced political repression.

“A lot of people see refugees in our community but don’t know all of the transition stories of what does it feel like to go through this massive life change,” she said.

Donnelly Tzul estimates about 1,000 refugees land in Idaho each year, most of them are sent to Boise.

To share their experiences, she and her staff have created “passports” that outline the life stories of several new Boiseans. It’s an idea she’s borrowed from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where visitors can learn the story of the concentration camps through one person’s real life experiences.
 
Alaa Sayah, a caseworker with the IRC shared one lighthearted example of the surprising challenges newcomers face. Sayah was trying to teach a family from Somalia how to use the appliances in their new home and he noticed something strange happening in the bathroom. One of the young boys was sitting with his bottom directly in the toilet water.
 
“He was sinking because he didn’t use the toilet seat the right way,” Sayah explained. “I told him, what are you doing!? And he could not explain what was going on.”

So Sayah walked the family through how to use the toilet properly, because boy had never used one before.
 
However, he cautions, not all refugees face those kinds of challenges. There are many refugees who come to Boise from Westernized or developed countries where toilets and ovens are common.

But for those who don’t, some stories do provide fodder for laughter and bonding between the IRC staff and their clients.

“There’s no shame or embarrassment, but it’s part of the life quilt,” Donnelly Tzul says. “Here was this moment when I learned this.”
 
Donnelly Tzul said one of her clients named Rita who moved to Boise from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) giggles when she tells the story of her first experience in her new home.

Rita set up a pot of milk and water on the stove to make tea. She left it and walked away expecting it to take a long time to boil like it did at her old home in the DRC. Quickly, the milk boiled over and set off the fire alarm.

“She’d been told about smoke detectors but she was terrified because she had no idea the noise would be so loud and so shocking,” Donnelly Tzul said.

Rita’s new neighbors came to the rescue and helped resolve the situation. They explained to Rita how to use the stove and how to stop the alarm.

But Rita shared her own view of what went wrong: where she comes from, milk just doesn’t boil that fast.

Thursday's event is from 4 to 7 p.m. at 7188 W. Potomac Drive in Boise. There will be food from many of the refugee's home countries. Visitors can meet the people profiled, ask the staff anything about refugees and the process, and sign up to volunteer or support the organization. Learn more here.

Find Jodie Martinson on Twitter @jodiemartinson

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