The colors that fill Idaho’s natural world are almost limitless — the varied blues of sky and rivers, the greens of forests and fields, and every shade of gray in the clouds marching endlessly overhead into the east.
But the colors of us, the people of the Gem State, offer little variety. More than four out of five of us are that shade of pink described by demographers as white.
Many like it this way. Being part of the majority is, above everything else, comfortable.
But oh, what we miss.
Twin Falls is like the rest of the state, except that it’s also home to one of the nation’s official refugee resettlement programs. Vetted refugees, usually families, are allowed to legally come to America. They are assigned to cities—they do not pick their destinations. Some are assigned to Twin Falls.
Some have never seen snow, but that soon changes. Many have never seen a McDonald’s. Most must learn the crazy English language from scratch, a herculean feat in itself. After a couple of months they’re expected to have a job and support themselves. All have had a hard life, and in many ways their cultural crash-landing in America is no less difficult.
But these are people who persevere. They’re used to hard. They’re used to it in a way that most of us will never understand. They see in this new challenge the chance to finally achieve something they may never have previously known: the hope of a quiet and peaceful life, where mothers and fathers can raise children without fear, and where children can dream.
Once each year the refugee families throw a party in a local park. They cook enormous amounts of the food native to their former homes, dress in the clothes that were once as common to them as waking up in the morning, but now look out of place in America’s vast blandness. They sing songs with lyrics the adults still understand but the kids now struggle to remember. They dance with lock-step abandon that puts American-style line dancing to shame with it’s fervent, bustling joy.
But this yearly party isn’t just for them. We’re all invited.
And to our great credit, many of us come.
At this year’s event the park was crowded with long lines waiting for the food samples from Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Burundi and Iran, all with their own unique flavor. Everyone tasted each other’s food and compared notes, as collectively colorful as a huge human kaleidoscope. White-bread Idahoans like myself joined the fun, all happily out of place.
We mingled, we talked, we laughed. The women shared secrets about the spices they used. After the food there was a talent show in the bandshell, where we saw dances from Africa and the Middle East. In the audience there was clapping and foot-stamping. The older ones were wistful in their enthusiasm — this was once their life. For their children it will soon be a faded memory, replaced with Twitter and television.
Near the end an older dark-skinned man came to the microphone to speak. You could tell by the stoop of his shoulders and the careful deliberateness of his step that he had lived a difficult life. But as he approached the microphone his eyes sparkled.
In only slightly accented English he told us he’d lived in Idaho for the last three years. He said it was hard, very hard, at first, but now he had a job and a car and permanent shelter. But it wasn’t what he possessed that made him happiest, it was what he had discarded. He was no longer afraid for his future, and that was worth everything.
Many of us don’t know that the United States of America has a motto: it’s a Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum,” which means “out of many, one.” Out of differences, unity. Not sameness — unity. Americans of every generation must learn this. Now it’s our turn.
At the end of his brief speech the little man raised his arms and shouted “God bless America!”
All of us, white and brown and black, cheered.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist who lives in southern Idaho. Connect with Chris on Facebook at Chris Huston-Finding My Way, and at www.chrishustonauthor.com.