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2023 Idaho Refugee Conference Takeaways

Three women present cultural dance
Photos: Christina Birkinbine & Jessica Ferguson

Hundreds of Boise State students and twenty faculty and staff joined community members at the annual Idaho Refugee Conference at Boise State last month. The conference brought together diverse perspectives providing opportunities to learn and engage with people from around the country and the world. Faculty from the departments of  Psychological Sciences, Communication, Social Work, and Sociology brought their classes, providing unique experiential learning opportunities as part of students’ class activities and learning goals on topics such as immigration, language acquisition, and the refugee experience.

Front and center was the voice of former refugees who have found successes and challenges here in Boise with the moving story of Dr. Palina Louangketh and the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora. Other new Americans shared their stories with students in a session facilitated by Lori Watsen (a faculty member in Social Work). The conference also highlighted Boise State faculty and deeply engaged students in these communities. The following are key takeaways from the conference and how it can serve as a model for experiential learning.

The University’s commitment to community engagement was on center stage. Provost John Buckwalter and the President’s Scholar for Community Engagement Brian Wampler, provided scholarships to help 15 faculty and staff attend the conference, further supporting Boise State’s collaborative relationship with the resettlement agency through research and service. This commitment contributes to the Blueprint for Success Strategic Plan Goals 1.) Improve Educational Access and Student Success 4.) Foster Thriving Community, and 5.) Trailblaze Programs and Partnerships. A team of Boise State staff, including the Center for Global Engagement, the CTL’s Service-Learning Program, Linguistics faculty, and others, partnered with the Idaho Office for Refugees to host the conference, including coordinating conference sessions specifically for the Boise State community.  Creating Connections was a theme that permeated the conference experience with multiple ways for participants to engage, ranging from dancing (led by Boise State staff Maya Duratovic), storytelling with art, networking, and skill development. The complete workshop list can be viewed on the Idaho Office for Refugees website.

Key takeaways and learning connections

Boise State faculty collaborated with community leaders and subject matter experts to provide rich educational opportunities for students, instructors, and the community. Below are a few highlighted sessions.

Refugee 101

Refugee 101 is a perennial workshop where even the most veteran participants can gain knowledge to understand the ever-changing state of refugee resettlement better and find ways to engage with the community. Emily Powers and Georgette Siqueriors from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) highlighted four main resettlement agencies that coordinate much of the support in the Treasure Valley: the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Idaho Office for Refugees (IOR), Agency for New Americans, and Idaho Alliance for Ukrainian. As policy and administrations change, so do the experience of new Americans. The IOR provides information on its website to keep up to date on the most current policies. Refugees are defined as persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection. A refugee cannot return to their country of origin once they have left the country until they have received a passport from the United States. There are many ways to support the resettlement agency’s work, from volunteering, donating, supporting refugee-owned businesses, and sponsoring refugees. Boise State students engage with many of these agencies through service-learning inspired courses.

Teaching Tips for Multilingual College Classrooms

Gail Shuck,Nicole Brun Mercer, and Liz Fleshman highlighted the benefits of creating more inclusive classrooms for Multilingual Learners (MLL) that benefit all students. Their work, among others here at Boise State, demonstrates how Boise State educators are all language teachers because each classroom and space on campus is linguistically diverse.  They advocate for Universal Design for Learning principles by creating multiple means of representation, action, expression, and engagement to create an inclusive environment for all MLL students. Providing more accessible learning environments allows for more successful student outcomes.

Collaborative Research in the Community: Building Trusting Relationships.

April Masarik, Katherine Doyon, Michal Temkin Martinez, Salome Mwangi, and Kristin Snopkowski, with Shukuru Kamulete, shared their research/project story through a panel discussion on Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). Their discussion highlighted the importance of including the community in the process and listening to their needs. They described how cultural humility helps in the journey of building trust to develop a common language. Dr. Temkin Martinez shared how holding a health fair to meet the needs first helped to sustain the research agenda with reciprocity. Shukuru’s experience as a student in Dr. Masarick’s Research Lab has led to their continued engagement and potential future Master’s program.

Our Language Matters

Michal Temkin Martinez, Tim Thornes, and Selda Delsooz showcased the Boise Language Project.  As part of the Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistic Lab, the project provides opportunities for students to research to document the Dari language and to participate in a mini-documentation project. Students from Therese Woozley’s Intercultural Communications class attended, bringing  to light many of their course concepts.  Students shared that there are rules in languages we don’t recognize. Components like prepositions and the associated rules can easily be forgotten when teaching a new language.

Starting over: Refugee Stories of Resilience and Hope

Salome Mwangi and Lori Watsen facilitated an engaged story listening event where over 150 Boise State students attended from five different classes as part of their integrated experiential learning. The students heard storytellers reflect on the hardships of living in countries where armed conflict affected their families and loved ones. They shared the challenges of refugee resettlement before, during, and after arriving in a host country, highlighting how hope and spirituality maintained their heads up, filling their hearts with resilience and perseverance. We all have different stories, and “you never know a person until you know their story.” – Their Story our Story.

Final Keynote

Jane Chu, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, shared her mother’s story through keepsake art. Jane’s feature story on Palina was published on Feb. 6 in the Smithsonian Folklife Magazine: What We Keep: A Single Mother’s Escape from Laos. Dr. Palina Louangketh is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora. She teaches at Boise State and serves as Bureau Chief with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.  Palina’s story and impact on the Boise Community are best summed up in this quote: “The refugee stories are a beacon of hope and a reminder of the sacrifices that brought our cultures together. They now have a place to call home, where we can raise the next generation of compassionate human beings.”

This conference, along with research and learning, is supported through Boise State Refugee Collaborative, which establishes a network of community, faculty, staff, and students to collectively develop learning opportunities across our communities. To learn more about this work, visit the Service-Learning Programs website.