Stronger Shines the Light Inside

Angie Smith

2017 - Ongoing

United States

Stronger Shines the Light Inside is an initiative created by Angie Smith that combines photographs and interviews to illuminate the stories of refugees who have resettled in America. Each portrait shares with the viewer a different aspect of the refugee experience, revealing what it means to seek peace and find freedom in the most unexpected regions in America.

The project began two years ago when I took a portrait of Rita Thara, a 28 year-old refugee from the DRC. She stood next to her four door Saturn, wearing an outfit that she sewed herself. She held her head high and gazed into the distance. Twelve years ago, Rita and her mother fled their village at dusk while the family members that stayed behind were later found and shot by militia. They lived as refugees for a decade in the Central African Republic, and after many attempts, she and her mother were granted refugee status and sent to America.

As the twin engine plane descended over Boise, Idaho, Rita realized that her new home would be nothing like the images of skyscrapers, bustling streets and mansions that inhabited her dreams. Four years later, Rita speaks English, owns her own car and opened her own boutique where she sells her own clothing designs. Rita is happy but acknowledges that life in America does not come without struggle.

“I will never be able to change what is behind, the only thing to do is follow the better things I have in front of me. I have faith and believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.”

Over the course of the two years that followed, I photographed and interviewed more than 100 refugees from all over the world living in Boise, Idaho and Salt Lake City, Utah. With a grant from the City of Boise Arts and History Department, I installed a large scale, public, outdoor exhibition that was displayed on the streets of Boise for two months. The project was recognized by the White House during the Obama Administration as being one of the most impactful initiatives in America to welcome and integrate immigrants.

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  • Makiwa Nduwimana, 18, at the Centennial High School prom, where she was a guest.

    Makiwa was born in Tanzania and lived in several refugee camps as a child. In 2008, she came to Boise with her aunt, who is her legal guardian. Makiwa grew up believing that her parents were dead, but she recently learned that her mother is alive and living in Africa. She graduated in May from Borah High School and attends Boise State University, where she may study nursing.

    “I was the only black person in the class, so I felt different from everybody else. But when I started knowing a little bit of English, I started meeting new friends and I got used to it. After four years of school in Boise, I started seeing more black people in school, which made me excited. It’s not a bad thing to be the only black person in class, but I felt like I was the only person who was different from others. Seeing other black people made me feel better about myself.”

  • Rita Thara stands in the foothills of Boise’s East End. Rita is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has lived in Boise for four years. When civil war broke out in 1997 she almost lost her life fleeing Kinshasa. Rita’s father was shot and killed by militia. Rita started a fashion business called Thara Fashion in Boise.

    "Yes it takes courage to let things go that have hurt you and start new things. I believe that all the pain I have in my life prepared me for better and bigger things. I wanna see all my dreams and my goals become reality- to be owner of my business, to see my business all around the world, became an international business woman, write my book, build my mom house, open an orphanage. Yes it's possible I can do it. "

  • Ramla came to Boise from Kenya with her parents and five siblings in 2004. She has two children, a 17-month-old and a 3-month-old (she was pregnant at the time of the photo). She graduated in May and hopes to attend the College of Western Idaho in the spring of 2017.

    “Being a mom and a student is frustrating because you want to get your education, but you have to leave your child with somebody. Everyone has a different way of raising kids. The way my parents raised us, they really wanted us to follow their traditions. I find their tradition and culture totally weird.”

  • Asma Dahir was crowned Miss Africa Utah in 2017. Here she stands in Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City.

    " I feel like when I was growing up, I lacked the representation of seeing people who have accomplished great things that look like me. I want to be the person I needed when I was younger. That’s what I’m trying to do with Miss Africa, trying to put myself out there sharing my stories and my narrative, sharing my poetry and my accomplishments to the youth."

  • Best friends Esperance and Sylvie pose for a portrait outside of a graduation party in Boise, Idaho.

    Sylvie remembers her life in the Congo: "I remember when I was in Congo, life was very very, how can I say, all the time, where to run, run. I was in some accident here with gunshots. I don’t want to remember that. It was very hard."

  • Baraka stands in the Boise foothills in 2016, when he was a senior attending Centennial High School. Now, he is attending College of Southern Idaho and is an avid photographer.

    "I think a refugee is not just a person fleeing disaster. I think a refugee is a person that strives to liberate a whole generation. Because the reason why there is America is because a group of people went from Europe to here because they wanted a better life, and look what we have now. So a refugee is not just a person who takes space and eats your food and takes your money. I think a refugee is a person who strives to make a better way for their generation. It’s not just a one-sided perspective. When you see one person getting out of another country to come into yours, it’s not just one person, it’s a lineage of people. And when you reject that one person, you are rejecting his whole generation. "

  • Members of the Gosha Education Foundation pray in a backyard in Boise during a break in their meeting. The Gosha are a Bantu minority who converted to Islam in the nineteenth century as captives of the Arab slave trade. The group meets three times a year to discuss how to help those still in refugee camps back home.

  • From left: Adija, Godlive, Alfonse and Francoise pose for a portrait during the wedding of a refugee couple from the DRC, now living in Boise.

    Adija said in her interview: "I enjoy living in America. I enjoy living with the American people. I enjoy to live with different nations, I learn more about them. The first thing I thought was, it was difficult for me to communicate with the people because of my language. So I was afraid to find a job. Many, many things were difficult for me. But now, I am so proud of myself. I am so proud now. I have little English, but right now, we are talking a lot, much more than before. I say ok, I want to learn English and I focus, I am so proud. Because I take my time to go to Nampa, to Job Corps. One year and five months I stayed there. But every weekend I come to Boise for the church. I love here in America to go to church. I love because we have freedom, the first thing. And we live in peace so that is a good thing."

  • Nyangoma Mudege is 25 years old and holds her daughter in front of the home of her sister in law in Boise, Idaho. This picture was taken the morning after she arrived with her two children to Boise, for the first time in October 2017.

    "I feel fine, I feel good. The atmosphere is nice, the hospitality, they way they have welcomed me. I'm very happy to be here."

  • Muganza lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda with his family for seven years. He arrived in Boise with his mother and twin brother in 2010. He graduated in May and has a soccer scholarship to Seattle Pacific University. He plans to become a professional soccer player or a physicians assistant.

    “When we lived in the camp, my mom fought through everything to make sure we ate every day. She took care of us. That’s how I got this mentality, this ambition of saying, ‘Everything is right in front of you. All you have to do is go there and get it. It takes hard work. It takes a long time. But you just have to be patient and know how you’re going to get it.’”

  • Hajia, 14, has been in school in Boise for a year, where she studies science, social science, and English. As a girl, she feels she has more freedom in America, but her goal remains the same: to become a doctor. “I had the same dream in Africa and here,” she says.

  • Rukundo Ngabidatinya, 18, center, facing camera, at the Borah High School senior prom.

    Rukundo was born in Rwanda. His mother died when he was young, and he came to Boise in 2012, with his father and brother, without knowing how to read. He graduated in May and hopes to find a job.

    “At school, we’re all friends, we all laugh, all sit at the same table. Some students invite me out. If they are going to the Y.M.C.A., I go there. But sometimes I don’t want to go, because they want to smoke, and I don’t do that. So I just stay home. I don’t have a job. I don’t want to work at McDonald’s. Maybe Walmart. Or maybe be a model, because people think I could be a model. I don’t know why. But some of my teachers told me that.”

  • Asma Dahir was crowned Miss Africa Utah in 2017. Here she stands in Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City.

    " To be a refugee is to be someone who is courageous, to be someone who has gone through so much difficulty and hardship. Refugees have walked different aspects of life and they do have a tremendous impact on society. They help contribute to the progression of society. "

  • Ramla Adan, 18, right, in the hallway at the Marian Pritchett School for teenage mothers.

    Ramla came to Boise from Kenya with her parents and five siblings in 2004. She has two children, a 17-month-old and a 3-month-old (she was pregnant at the time of the photo). She graduated in May and hopes to attend the College of Western Idaho in the spring of 2017.

    “Being a mom and a student is frustrating because you want to get your education, but you have to leave your child with somebody. Everyone has a different way of raising kids. The way my parents raised us, they really wanted us to follow their traditions. I find their tradition and culture totally weird.”

  • Tito Ndayishimiye is a 21 year old filmmaker who has lived in Boise since he was 11. He was born in Rwanda and moved to Tanzania to live in a refugee camp for 10 years until his family was sent to Boise. He works full time at a call center during the day and runs his own thriving filmmaking business on this side.

    "My mom and dad were born in Burundi and a war broke down there and they moved to Rwanda and that's when they had me. Then another war broke down over there and they move to Tanzania. And that's where I was raised and grew up.

    As a young boy I was always around friends. I had a group of friends and we would always wander off in the woods. We would always go and climb trees. There was a highest tree that we always climbed and then we would always go on the top and try to see the aerial shot of the camp.

    When we left Tanzania I think I was nine. The process took like three years. We were in Tanzania and then we started doing some interviews. It would be four months between each interview day. We were getting tested, we were going to hospitals, we were trying to making sure that we were clean. And then, we get into the plane. It was my first time getting in a plane. It was a little plane. I was excited and afraid. "

  • Fatuma, a refugee from the DRC stands with her daughter in an Episcopal church in Boise, Idaho.

    "In Uganda [refugee camp] the life was not easy. You know, sometimes I don't like to think about Uganda again because the life I passed through. I dislike to remember the past. Even right now I don't like thinking in Uganda anymore because my parents are there suffering. It is too hard.

    Even if you don't feel happy in America so nothing you can do when you're alone so. You have to make yourself busy. If I just see I'm not happy, I just move to my neighbors, my friends, just chat together with them, to make just myself busy. If I'm alone at home I just sleep, after I wake up take shower and then I pray. That's enough for me."

  • Alfonse, 48, has worked as a housekeeper to support her five kids, two of whom remain in a refugee camp. She makes her own clothes: “I love it so much, because it’s my identity.”

  • Apiel stands for a portrait during a World Refugee Day celebration in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was raised in a refugee camp in Kenya and lost her mother at 14 years-old. She bore her first child at 15 and was forced to drop out of school.

    "If I have stress myself, I will sit up by myself and think. And after I finish, I will pray. That’s how I do. I pray always, regular to God to help me. And then after, I cry to God. Everything gone. So, it’s ok. I help myself. My condition, when I was in the camp, when I was raped. I never knew that I would be in America, talking with someone like you. I never knew that will happen. Because my mind was taking negative thoughts only. I thought, what will do with these kids. I will kill them, and I will kill myself. That’s the only option."

  • Elia Malike sits in the family room of the house he shares with his parents and siblings. Elia came to Boise as a refugee from a camp in Tanzania 10 years ago. He is currently a junior in high school and wants to pursue music production and singing.

    "Life is a little bit complicated. I lost my dad last month so my life has changed a little bit. Back then, a couple months ago or years ago I was just a boy who would not care about anything because I knew that whatever was gonna happen my dad was going take care of it, not me. A lot happened the past couple months. I just realized that life is too short and as long as you're doing the right thing, have a good reputation, as long as you're nice to everybody, when you die, you're remembered."

  • Sar Bah Bi is a refugee from Burma who moved to Idaho five years ago. She met her husband, a refugee from Somalia when she was a junior in high school. They fell in love despite the fact that they were both just learning English—the only language they could communicate in. They are now married and have started a business selling their own produce at the Capitol City Farmer’s Market in downtown Boise.

    "In Burma, it’s bad, too much problems, fighting. They kill people. And we have a hard time. It’s not easy, even Thailand too. That time, I was young. I leave my family in there. Before in the past, we have hard time, run away from Burma, because the people from Burma, they’re shooting, you know. They don’t like Muslims. They don’t like each other. They hate Muslim people. I don’t know why."