Why Africa Matters to Boise

Boise’s ties to sub-Saharan Africa are equal parts common and extraordinary. While Boise and the state of Idaho’s trade and investment profile with the region mirrors other neighboring U.S. cities and states, the city has distinguished itself from counterparts in two significant areas. Namely, Boise is a pacesetter for welcoming African refugees, and its national politicians are shaping the future of U.S.-Africa policy. Boise’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa has enriched the city’s economic and cultural life and increased its prominence in U.S. foreign policy.

Although Boise has a population of just over 230,000, it has been of the country’s most inviting to those fleeing persecution, violence, and humanitarian crises. Since 1975, it has accepted more than 30,000 refugees from more than 50 countries. Refugees from African countries, including Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Somalia, feature prominently in this group. Indeed, Idaho in general and Boise in particular punch well above their weight. The state welcomes one of the largest shares of refugees relative to its population. Boise’s African population has become integral to the city’s economy, as well as its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many regard Boise’s refugee population as an antidote to the city’s ageing workforce. The city’s African residents are opening their own retail shops, serving African cuisine, and contributing to the local tech scene. Many Africans are on the frontlines of Covid-19; Jonathan Amissa, for example, is a refugee from Cameroon who studied as an EMT, and his company, Skyroad Medicial Transport, sews masks for the community. It is no wonder, therefore, that Idaho governor Brad Little has defended the state’s refugee resettlement program to the Trump administration, underscoring the value newcomers contribute to Idahoan communities.

Boise’s national leaders have been notably active on African issues. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a leading voice for democracy and human rights in Cameroon, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. He is also clear-eyed about Africa’s significance in global affairs. Under his leadership, the committee released a majority report presenting a new agenda for U.S.-European cooperation on China. The report dedicates one of its chapters to Africa, indicating that the continent is undergoing a critical transition and the United States and Europe should “work in close collaboration with African partners to help manage these tectonic shifts, counter malign influence, and promote the growth of healthier, more stable, democratic societies that share our values and interests.” Risch’s colleague, Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), is also engaged. Both senators in 2019 traveled to South Africa and Mozambique, where they visited the Gorongosa National Park. The trip reaffirmed Boise’s partnership with the park, to which it donates $200,000 each year to help support wildlife conservation efforts.

Boise’s people-to-people and political ties to sub-Saharan Africa have had a multiplying effect, spurring residents and the city’s leading institutions to strengthen relations and contribute to Idahoan politics. Boise State University has hosted the Mandela Washington Fellowship, bringing promising young African leaders to the university and facilitating engagements between the fellows and local businesses and nonprofits. These links presumably inspired Michel Sousa, a Boise State student from Mozambique, to become involved in an initiative to 3D print Covid-19 face shields for her home country. It also underpinned Tecle Gebremichael’s campaign to become the first Ethiopian refugee to run for city council, because he wanted to do everything he could to “give back to the country and community” that welcomed him here.

Boise’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa showcases why Africa matters to the United States. Its open doors have contributed to the city’s economic, cultural, and political life, and its national politicians have been at the forefront of defining U.S.-Africa relations. These dynamics may explain why Dayo Ayodele, a Nigerian who moved to Boise a few years ago, boasted that “We Africans talk about it: Boise is the best-kept secret in America.”

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont