The Place Where I Need to Be
By David H. Bieter, Mayor of Boise, Idaho
Boise was built by immigrants. As the most remote metropolitan area in the lower 48 states, our city has long been a place where people came from around the world to find economic opportunity and build a better life.
Ninety-five years ago, a man named Lorenzo Garmendia was trying to make a living here in Idaho and wrote to his family in the Basque Country:
"I've really been wanting to get involved in the sheep business and either lose the little money that I have or earn double the amount, because even if I lose the little money that I have, there are good wages for work after you go bankrupt. The worst that can happen after you go bankrupt is that I'll have to be an old single guy, because nobody wants an old single guy without money."
Since the early 1980s, when Boise became a refugee resettlement community, our city has welcomed not only those seeking to make their livelihoods but also those escaping political, ethnic and religious oppression. Resettlement agencies discovered the many positive attributes that those of us fortunate to live in Boise well know: plentiful entry-level jobs; affordable housing; easy transportation; abundant arts, cultural and recreational opportunities; and a safe and welcoming community.
Boise Mayor Bieter greets schoolchildren with books and pajamas.
Even these attributes have been challenged by the recent national recession. Our newest residents are often the hardest hit in hard times, and because employment is critical to successful resettlement, many refugees have found themselves on the brink of homelessness.
In response, the City of Boise and the Idaho Office for Refugees convened a roundtable of community partners and resettlement agencies. The goals: to understand the resettlement process, to determine how refugees and resettlement agencies define successful resettlement, and to explore opportunities with our many community partners to increase the services essential to that success.
The roundtable led to creation of the Refugee Resource Strategic Community Plan with six focus areas (Education, Employment, Health, Housing, Social Integration and Transportation), setting goals in each area and assigning action items to community partners. Critical to the planning process was the trust and commitment of the resettlement agencies, which informed the community's understanding of the resettlement process and provided expert guidance in setting service priorities for successful resettlement.
While a recession negatively impacts a community's employment, it need not diminish a community's caring qualities. This plan, created and implemented in the depths of the recession, demonstrates the importance and success of a broad, community-based planning effort. More importantly, it resulted in measurable differences in economic self sufficiency. In 2009, 55% of Boise's employable refugee adults were working. With concerted economic development efforts, that number jumped to 74% in 2011.
Lorenzo Garmendia not only made a life in Boise; he found a wife and had three daughters, one of whom was my mother, Eloise Garmendia Bieter. Fidel Nshombo's words in his 2009 book, Route to Peace: The Cries of the Forgotten Refugees in Deadly Camps, echo the experience of my grandfather almost a century earlier:
"Boise was a place I never dreamed of, a place I never heard of, a place where today I think I really needed to be all along. A place of peace, love and prosperity. A place that allowed me to search for myself, my family, my dream ..."
Photos courtesy Theresa McLeod