BOISE, Idaho -- Iraqi refugees Alaa Amir and his son Mustafa have begun a new journey -- thousands of miles from the uncertainty and persecution they found in Baghdad. Their new path is on the streets of Boise, Idaho.
"They give me the plane ticket, 'You will go to Boise, Idaho,'" Amir chuckled. "I say, 'Boise, Idaho. Why not California?'"
Amir had never heard of Idaho. He innocently jokes about his new home, but he is in no way complaining. The English translator and interpreter is grateful for the peaceful, less crowded community he has found in Boise. It's a far cry from his life in Iraq, where he feared he and his son could be killed under Saddam Hussein's regime.
"I wasn't a member of the Baath party, and this is unnormal for the regime," said Amir. "The regime thinks that all Iraqis should be a member of that party. From time to time, questioning, accusations."
Amir and his son managed to escape, and fled to neighboring Jordan. Eventually, they were allowed to immigrate to the United States. He says some of his family members and colleagues were not so fortunate.
"Many of them were shot, because they just working as an interpreter," Amir told CBN News. "Or just someone just wanted to be a hero by killing them."
More Than Two Million Have Fled Iraq
Amir's story is one of many. The United Nations estimates more than two million Iraqis have fled to nearby countries like Jordan and Syria. A small percentage of Iraqi refugees have made it into the United States after a lengthy resettlement process. The latest figures from the U.N. show approximately 20,000 are now living in the U.S. Amir and his son are among those cherishing their new found freedom.
"What I like about America is that the people are friendly, and always helping each other," Amir's son Mustafa said with a smile.
"It is more than just a dream, it is a miracle," Amir emphasized. "America contains the best things of many nations."
Under criticism that it has been too slow in admitting Iraqi refugees, the U.S. State Department plans to resettle 12,000 this year alone. Private resettlement agencies meet weekly to determine where the Iraqis will live. They consider the availability of housing, the cost of living, as well as the size of the refugee family and their job skills.
Boise Welcomes Refugees
Refugees are not required to go to their assigned cities, but most do, to qualify for government help. Boise is one of more than 200 cities picked to welcome them.
"We have, I think, a very welcoming climate," said Jan Reeves, the director of the Idaho Office for Refugees. "We have opportunities for people. We're in a growth mode as a city."
Around 150 Iraqi refugees have made Boise their home in the last year. The most recent group joins 300 Iraqis, who resettled here in the early 1990s, after the first Gulf War.
"It's really a very accepting area," said Larry Jones, the affiliate director for World Relief Treasure Valley, a Christian organization. "The West has kind of a feeling of independence. You live in your yard, and I'll live in my yard, and when we need to work together on something we will, otherwise, we'll just kind of do our own business," he continued. "It's just really not ethnically charged or polarized in any way."
Although most of the Iraqis prefer to keep a low profile in Boise, there are signs of their presence. For example, there are now three mosques, including one known as the Islamic Center of Boise.
But in this city that's 92 percent white, there has been some tension. An Iraqi refugee told USA Today he found leaflets on his lawn that read, "This is not your home. You have to leave. KKK."
"People are people, and there are feelings that go all across the board," Reeves said. "I don't think it would be unique to Idaho or to Boise. I think there are mixed feelings everywhere."
Some of those feelings involve terrorism concerns, as well as jobs.
"I think it's kind of wrong, because they're taking over American citizens' jobs," one Boise resident told CBN News.
However, most of the people CBN News spoke with had a positive attitude toward the Iraqi refugees.
"I say bring 'em on," a Boise resident said. "That's what the United States is about. We're all a bunch of refugees."
"I think it's a great thing," another resident commented. "I think they need kind of a safe haven, a place they need to get away."
"It's also diversifying our community, which I think is a good thing as well, and it's good for our families to reach out and help them," said another Boise resident.
Christian Group Reaches Out to Refugees
World Relief Treasure Valley is one of the agencies in Boise reaching out to the refugees.
"We are basically their parents when they come to Boise," Jones said. "We meet them at the airport. We take them to an apartment that we've already furnished with donated furniture and food."
And that's just the beginning. There's a lot to learn in a new country, from opening a checking account, to where to shop, to knowing about junk mail.
"To them every piece of mail is very special and was sent directly to them, and so we spend a lot of time going through advertisements and credit card applications, to say, 'You don't need this,'" Jones explained.
There's also the language barrier. Many Iraqi refugees do not speak English. Boise has an English Language Center, where teachers coach the newcomers.
For Jones, helping the refugees is a spiritual mandate.
"It's a very humbling experience," Jones told CBN News. "First, I put myself in their place, and to be uprooted and taken to a country where I didn't even have the vestiges of language, and be expected to survive -- I would have to rely very heavily on friendly faces and helping hands in that country, and that's exactly what our role is, is to be the helping hands of Christ."
Refugees also attend job readiness classes. Amir serves as a translator for Iraqi refugees at the classes. He is still trying to land a full-time language job, but remains positive, saying it's just a matter of time.
Meanwhile, Amir and his son enjoy just being free. The boy is doing well in school, and has become a Boise State fan.
"My first time I see players, the first one I hug him, yes, and I telling him, 'You are a good player,'" Mustafa excitedly recalled.
Their new home lies in the part of Idaho known as the Treasure Valley. Quite fitting, because for many Iraqi refugees, Boise is gold.
*Original broadcast August 19, 2008.