Editor’s Note: The theme of the 2023 AASLH Annual Conference is “I, Too, Am America,” which explores an inclusive definition of American identity and history. This post by Salome Mwangi describes her experience as refugee from Kenya to American citizen living in Boise, the conference host city. 

Salome Mwangi on the TEDx Boise red carpet, at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival stage, in October 2020.

By Salome Mwangi

The journey from Nairobi, Kenya, was unlike any that I had ever taken. And while my then-husband’s dream was coming alive with each mile that we flew towards Europe, mine was fading to black. He was a refugee from Ethiopia and together, we were about to begin to rebuild our lives, together, away from what we both knew – our homelands, our people, our food, our lives! We were relocated to Concord, New Hampshire, where we lasted 20 days.

You see, Boise, Idaho, was calling. And we answered. The flight to Boise was a strange experience of flying cross-country with a never-ending sunset.

Being a refugee is a legal status that attests to the fact that you fled your country, crossed an international border seeking refuge in another one. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, after interviewing refuge seekers then gives them a letter recognizing one as a refugee. Many refugees end up in refugee camps where they receive services and support from a variety of non-governmental organizations as they wait out the time and process that it takes before one is accepted and resettled in a third country. The choice of where one ends up is in the hands of the countries where one applies. Only one percent of refugees worldwide end up resettled in a third country.

By the time we arrived in Idaho in 2004, it was a very discombobulating experience. It was at the beginning of winter, and it was cold. I had never felt
this cold before. The welcoming community in Boise took us in, helped us find the appropriate clothing, and made the adjustment less daunting. Within a few weeks, we were given a car and began the lessons of driving on the right side of the road as opposed to the left side. Then we found jobs, started finding our way around our new home and city. Things were slowly making sense.

It felt almost child-like to experience a new language, different culture, a new lease of life. My ex-husband got to experience freedom for the first time in a long time. He learned to drive for the first time. He got to work for the first time in a long time. We slowly but surely stepped outside our comfort zones as individuals, as parents, as human beings. Before long, it was time to apply for our “green cards.” That’s when we got to change our status from refugee to legal residents, a huge step in the journey towards U.S citizenship. And it felt like a short while later, I was applying for this citizenship.

I don’t have the words to describe the citizenship ceremony that cold February morning in 2010. I was excited to finally make this watershed moment. After crossing that threshold, I applied for an American passport, which allowed me to travel internationally once more. I could now participate in matters pertaining to elections at the local and national level by casting my vote.

The best part though, was being able to bring the flavors of my past experiences and blending them with those of where I was. Where I am. Where I see myself, tomorrow. I have allowed myself the creative luxury of living life with relevance now, unhindered by the past, and propelled by what the future has in store. I have enjoyed and endured raising a child, birthed through a Kenyan cultural framework, nurtured by the American landscape of values and now as a young adult, finding herself whole, just as she is.

I had the privilege of sharing a slice of this journey in my TEDx Boise 2020 talk entitled “Being a Cultural Broker.” As I look back on what this has been like, I realize that it’s like riding a bike. You must push one pedal and then the other to stay upright and move forward. And before long, you get to enjoy riding your bike with others, on the same beautiful paths, drinking in the scenic Idaho outdoors, inviting others to come along. And as we live our lives, we discover that our
hearts beat with the same thump-thump of a rich heritage, yours, mine, and ours.