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‘My Skin is Yummy, like Chocolate’
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Wednesday, May 4, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Salome Mwangi bristled as the 3-year-old took a look at her brown skin and remarked, “You have yucky skin.”

But quickly the Nairobi, Kenya, refugee figured out how to turn that statement around.

“I said, ‘My skin is yummy, like chocolate,” recounted Mwangi, who manages the Refugee Speaker Bureau at the Idaho Office for Refugees. “And I hope I left him with a different perspective than what he had been learning.”

Mwangi, who has called Boise home for the past 17 years, was one of four speakers with the Idaho Refugee Speakers Bureau who came to Ketchum Friday and Saturday to take part in a panel discussion at The Community Library and a cooking demonstration at the Sun Valley Culinary Institute.

They were brought here by The Advocates.

Representatives of The Advocates and other nonprofit organizations created a Conversations Coalition after the George Floyd incident to address diversity.

“When you get to know and understand others that are different, it takes away fear,” said Tricia Swartling, CEO of The Advocates. “Salome’s story illustrated the importance of how you respond to things. She could have been so offended but instead she responded in a way that hopefully educates that young boy. It takes incredible skill to educate people who are coming from a place of fear, but it’s so important. This shows how it’s important for each of us to avoid getting upset, angry or dismissive and rather be curious.”

Shadi Ismail, who joined Mwangi on the stage of the library, grew up in Syria where his father—a military officer—divorced his mother because she was Christian. He fled Syria to Jordan in 2008 because being gay placed his life in danger.

“I had to flee my country because I love who I love,” he said.

After enduring hardships as a refugee in Jordan, he was resettled in Boise in 2012, bringing only his heart, his love, his clothes and himself. His story is featured in Apple TV’s “Little America” series, which showcases the stories of immigrants. He works fulltime and makes traditional handmade Syrian pillows and blankets, and he does catering, making favorite Syrian dishes.

He told of following a bus on his bicycle downtown trying to find the office of the Idaho Refugee Center. Unable to speak or read English, he was frantically trying to match a sign to the address on a paper in the palm of his hand when a woman spotted him, grabbed his hand and walked him to the center.

“Someone earlier had said, ‘Why you go to Idaho? It’s very redneck,’ ” he said. “But I believe God sends you an angel when you need one. That woman saw me, walked with me, and that act of kindness was my first experience with American culture.”

He is now an American citizen.

“You were blessed to be born here in this beautiful country,” Ismail told listeners. “I earned my place. I think: When do I become American? When I see the good things I do, the love I receive…I am American because I participate.”

Ava Steven came to America in 2012 from Iraq—first to San Jose, then to Boise--after her father’s work as an Iraq Army officer with the American military put her family in danger.

A one-time student at Boise State University, she recounted how she initially cried every day because she wanted to go home. But, when she did have the opportunity to visit, she realized how blessed she was that her American passport afforded her the opportunity to bypass long lines for Iraqis in airport terminals and buses. After a few weeks she wanted to come back to Idaho.

“This is home,” she said.

Steven noted that her daughter sometimes begs her not to put Arabic food in her backpack because the schoolkids make fun of it.

“But they do that because they’ve never tried it,” she said. “Instead of going to McDonald’s sometimes you should go to Ethiopian restaurant, to an Arabic restaurant. Give it a try.”

Alejandra Hernandez, a native of Santiago, Chile, came to the United States 27 years ago for love. She spent the first 20 years in Boston where she got a master’s in Educational Leadership and a bachelor’s in Educational Psychology, then moved to Idaho. She now lives in Twin Falls with her pet Margarito and she serves as the executive director of the unity Alliance of Southern Idaho, a nonprofit that promotes an understanding of how immigrants contribute to the state’s economy, way of life and values.

Despite 15 years providing technical assistance to schools and leading trainings, Hernandez said she still feared she wasn’t enough to be accepted because of her Spanish accent. But, she said, she finally awakened to the realization that “I have a value and a contribution to make.”

Upon moving to Twin Falls, she drove a school bus for a year, learning how to drive the bus in snow on country roads without road signs and house numbers. She fell in love with the kids on the bus and invented spelling games for them to play while waiting for the teachers to arrive so they could get off the bus.

Her mantra is “Get curious, not furious.” And she loves that everything works here.

“Here you call 911. Everyone—the fire trucks, the police, the ambulance—comes. “At home you call and maybe someone will show up the next day,” she said.

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