Land of sagebrush, cottonwood, and white pine, snow-capped mountains and potatoes, Idaho is well known for its salt-of-the-earth values, though less so for its cultural diversity. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to see a Congolese woman in brightly colored fabric waiting at a crosswalk, or to buy vegetables from Somali and Burmese vendors at the farmer’s market. Many of these new Americans came to Idaho as refugees seeking peace after long and arduous journeys.
Stronger Shines the Light Inside tells the stories of resettlement in Idaho. Over the course of more than a year, photographer Angie Smith has documented the process of refugees rebuilding their lives in not just an American but an Idahoan context. She has photographed Rwandans in their first snowfall, teenage Iraqis in their first prom dresses, and Burmese practicing their first English words. Along with writer Hanne Steen, Smith has been invited to drink tea in the homes of new Americans from Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Sudan, treated with the same hospitality and generosity that her subjects are so grateful for themselves. She has heard the laughter of children playing freely in the grassy courtyards of apartment buildings, been invited into churches, graduations, traditional wedding ceremonies, and witnessed the warmth of Idahoans sharing in the beauty and bounty of their beloved home.
Refugees who make it to Idaho are among the lucky few who have been offered another chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—the unalienable rights upon which the American Dream was founded. For some, this dream means safety from violence and persecution; for some, an education; for others, enough food to feed their children.
Each story is unique, but there are common threads. Many point to a serendipitous moment, a right person at the right time—someone who saved their life while fleeing, someone who offered a ride to a supermarket on their first day in Idaho, a friendly face who helped them read a bus schedule, or simply smiled and said hello. All speak of their desire to integrate and contribute to the community, and many express gratitude for those who have helped them to do so.
Of the 65 million displaced people worldwide, only 1% of refugees will be resettled in a host country and of those, each has endured a long and grueling screening process, often spanning years. Every story is different, but each one speaks of hope, of refusal to give up. This resilience is their common strength, and the light that shines through their stories has the power to illuminate our lives, our communities, and our world.