BOISE — Gracieux Baraka finally had the moment he’d been dreaming of for years.
Baraka, 19, and his family came to America as refugees from Kenya five years ago, but he didn’t officially bear the title of U.S. citizen until he recited the naturalization oath and received a certificate on Saturday.
“It almost feels like premonition,” he said in an interview afterwards. “I don’t quite remember how I was when I was that age, but I guess at that time, something in me told me that we’d have a better life if we’d have it here in America. And to see that happen is one of those miracles.”
He was among 20 refugees who became naturalized citizens Saturday at the World Refugee Day celebration in downtown Boise.
Idaho has resettled over 23,000 people from nearly 60 countries since 1975, according to the Idaho Office of Refugees. The organization, part of the Jannus network, hosted this year’s event, along with the Agency for New Americans and the International Rescue Committee.
Though officially on June 20, Boise held its celebration Saturday. A few hundred turned out for the event, in the Garden Plaza, a celebration of Boise’s booming refugee community held annually since 2001.
“I think one of the most beautiful feelings is to think of something and to see that in front of you is just amazing. I can’t really tell what that was. … But it’s a great thing nevertheless,” Baraka said.
He wore faded amber eyeglasses, black leather brogue wingtips and traditional African garb at the ceremony to complement his witty, carefree demeanor.
Baraka is a sophomore at the College of Southern Idaho. After originally pursuing an associate’s degree in business, he’s since since switched to visual arts.
He’s a photographer, and he’s got quite the Instagram, but he doesn’t like to toot his own horn.
“If it wasn’t so narcissistic to say, I think I’m a great photographer,” Barka said.
He paints, but he doesn’t pursue it nearly as intense as his passion for photography. Inspired by Kanye West’s song “Runaway,” he’s also learning how to play piano.
“I think I’m in love with Kanye West,” Baraka said. “I don’t think there’s anything he’s done in music that I hate. There’s some that I like more than other. But that man, is top down one of the best artists I’ve ever seen.”
That’s just one example of why he loves America.
“When diversity’s all around you, it’s infectious. You can’t help but get into Hispanic music when you’re around Hispanic people, because it’s a beautiful thing,” Baraka said. “That’s what I realized. I love African culture, but I can love cultures everywhere. And that to me is more phenomenal.”
When he and his family, including his four siblings came to America in 2013, he’d already known English for quite some time, and he’d gotten a snippet of American culture through movies.
That gave him time to perfect his American inflections.
“It’s like ‘Hiii. How aaare you?’ … It’s an exaggeration of a subtle thing but if you paid attention to it enough you’d notice it,” Baraka said. “It’s almost like if you didn’t breathe in so much you’d hear your heartbeat. It’s so subtle; it’s only when you notice it.”
Baraka was quick to say he’s lucky to have been granted asylum with his family, which, refugee organizations say, is not the case for quite a few.
In Boise alone, the International Rescue Committee knows of 74 families that haven’t been fully reunited with loved ones since seeking asylum in the U.S.
“Imagine your spouse not being able to come with you,” IRC Executive Director Julianne Donnelly Tzul said. “Folks in that situation — some of them are really discouraged; they’ve been waiting for years now. What do you do? Do you start planning for a life where your loved one never makes it here? Do you trying to string hope along?”
An April 2018 Economist report predicted America was on track to resettle 21,800 refugees this year — a 61 percent drop from 2017, in which roughly two-thirds the amount of refugees were resettled compared to 2016 figures.
The projection’s figures put 2018 at a historic low for the amount resettled refugees in America, only surpassed by dwindling rates in 1980.
A day before the celebration, a report commissioned by the city of Boise in partnership with other local groups and authored by the New American Economy, highlighted the growing economic impact that immigrants, including refugees, have within Ada County.
The report, ”New Americans in Ada County”, found that immigrant populations in Ada grew at a rate nearly two percent higher than the total population did, and that it comprised 7.5 percent of Ada’s working-age population and 19.3 percent of its agricultural workforce and 12.4 percent of its STEM workforce.
It also found there was a total of 961 students enrolled in colleges and universities in Ada County during the fall of 2015, and their presence supported 296 local jobs and $24.7 million dollars in the 2016-17 academic year.
The findings came as no surprise to Chase Johnson, a research associate wat Boise State University’s Frank Church Institute.
“Their entire world has fallen apart. They are threatened violently for their political disposition or their ethnic make-up at home. So their home doesn’t exist anymore. So the country that takes them in — this is what the studies have shown — there’s extreme buy-in in those communities,” Johnson said.
That increased buy-in, he said, typically translates to refugees contributing to local economies through spending and maintaining high and low skill labor. He said Ada’s mix of immigrants fits that trend.
“(They) are extremely productive citizens because they have buy-in and usually they fill critical gaps in the labor market that natives will not do here,” Johnson said.
And, he said that means refugees typically aren’t a tax burden over the long run. That aligns with findings from a 2017 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research that found the average adult refugee pays taxes that exceed relocation costs and social benefits.
Plus, he said, perpetual fears of criminals or terrorists coming over as refugees are unfounded.
“There’s an unfounded fear that people coming from conflict are participants in that conflict, or are radicalized,” Johnson said. “Now, we have seen some evidence of second generation radicalization, or a tendency to hold extremist views in the second generation of the refugee population, but it’s because they were treated terribly when when they (relocated.)”