These Incredible Photos Of Refugees In Idaho Shine A Light On Their Unique Experience
Five years ago, photographer Angie Smith noticed something a little different about her hometown of Boise, Idaho — the predominantly white town was becoming a little less homogenous. "I started to notice refugees when I would drive around town, but back then, no one really knew very much about what it meant to be a refugee," Smith says. Although it took another four years before she took her first portrait, that's the moment Smith's photoseries, Stronger Shines the Light Inside, was born.
According to the Idaho Office of Refugees, over 7,000 refugees have settled across Idaho since 2000. They mostly come from Africa and Southeast Asia. People persecuted due to ethnicity, gender, religion, or political affiliation undergo the long and arduous vetting process required by the American government, and eventually find their way to places like Boise, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is relatively high.
Smith tells Bustle she initially had reservations about starting the project. Five years ago, she says, "I tried making some contacts in the community, but I didn’t feel like any doors were opening. A few people I asked for contacts seemed to want to protect the refugees here from any exposure. Reflecting on it, I think I even felt like it was too private, and I would be invading people’s space and imposing on their peaceful new life in Idaho."
The breakthrough in the project came when the refugees invited Smith into their community, to become a part of their new lives. Her first subject was Rita Thara, a 27-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who both introduced her to the Boise refugee community and helped her figure out the real reason she was undertaking the extensive project.
I realized in that moment that I had an opportunity to help people gain a deeper understanding of the refugee experience.
"[Rita and I] were around the same age, both very creative, and we instantly connected," Smith says. "As I took her portrait, she told a story of how she and her mother barely escaped the Congo alive. She has been in Boise now for four years and has a thriving fashion design business. I realized in that moment that I had an opportunity to help people gain a deeper understanding of the refugee experience. She introduced me to her friends, I photographed them, they recommended me to other families, and a few months later I had enough work to start applying for grants."
The name of the project, Stronger Shines the Light Inside, came from a poem that one of the refugees Smith was close with wrote. Smith says she thought about what the project represented, as well as the themes in the poem, and ultimately came up with the title. "In those moments when I am feeling tired and discouraged, I think about the title and it keeps me going," Smith says.
After months of work, Smith received a $10,000 grant from the city of Boise to establish an outdoor exhibition of her project and display her portraits downtown. But Smith wants to do more, and continue spreading her work to other communities that should embrace refugees. On Tuesday, Smith launched a Kickstarter campaign to expand her project to other cities across the country. Campaign donors can receive rewards like a fair trade necklace from a Rwandan nonprofit that empowers women financially or a handmade backpack from Thara's fashion company.
For Smith, the most important part of this project is the opportunity to connect with people, even when that's made difficult by linguistic or cultural barriers. "When I am working with a refugee on this project, we don’t share language or a cultural understanding of one another. We need other ways to make that connection. Somehow, the connection defaults to a language of the heart," Smith says. "There is nothing better than that feeling that your soul had been lit up by connecting with another human being."
Images: Courtesy of Angie Smith (4)