I bet you have not heard about the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora.
Idaho? Why does Idaho need a museum of international diaspora?
I bet you didn’t know that there are 123 countries of origin and distinct peoples in Idaho over the state’s history. This may not sound unique, but for Idaho, it’s quite special. As a matter of fact, Boise – Idaho’s capital – was certified as a “welcoming city” by Welcoming America in 2019.
This is where my story begins – a former refugee from Laos who now teaches at Boise State University. This is what I want to share with you for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
AAPI:Asian and Pacific Islander heritage helps lift America to what it must be
Forced displacement of peoples from war and disasters
The Idaho Museum of International Diaspora (IMID, pronounced “eye mid”) is an emerging multicultural community center and museum – an educational hub where visitors will connect, learn and experience histories, accomplishments and cultures of diverse people in past and current contexts.
My inspiration for creating the IMID predates my life as an Idahoan.
The IMID defines “diaspora” as the involuntary displacement of peoples and includes those who are not only of refugee and immigrant backgrounds, but also those who have been displaced resulting from human trafficking, adoption and homelessness.
Legacies of War:Undetonated bombs still litter Laos
For my single mother, her courageous decision to flee during the communist domination in Laos with her two young children from our home in Southern Laos that evening in November 1979 took us on a remarkable journey of surviving uncertainty.
We journeyed for 2 1/2 weeks on foot, climbed up trees during the day to sleep in safety, slept in massacre sites to hide from danger because danger had already befallen those who laid lifeless around us, and even paddled a wooden single-file canoe across the mighty and treacherous Mekong River from Laos to Thailand – all in the spirit of attaining freedom and safety.
Who wouldn’t want this? What sacrifices are you willing to make to attain the highest level of security and happiness?
From Laos to refugee camps to Idaho
Our long journey with only the clothes we wore out of Laos into two refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines and into the United States brought us to our new home in Boise in October 1981.
Idaho has a long-standing history of welcoming refugees since 1975, when the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program was established. It was the program that my family and I came through. Shortly after the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees, Idaho soon received new refugee arrivals from Eastern Europe. As conflicts continued, people were scattered throughout the world.
This displacement of peoples out of their homes, regions and countries – referred to as a diaspora phenomenon – is why the IMID is such a critical player in sharing their collective stories globally through creative platforms. IMID will highlight the lives of diaspora groups from within Idaho and around the world through art, food, culture, music, literature, the environment and additional creative platforms.
Surviving war:From Laos to Arizona Costume Institute
As Ukraine and Afghanistan continue to show us, people forced to flee their homes need to share their pasts with their new communities so they can share a future.
Over the decades, Idaho has continued to resettle new arrivals, including refugees from additional European countries, parts of Africa, Middle Eastern countries, Central and East Asia, and the Caribbean. Today, Boise is actively resettling Afghan refugees.
Though Idaho is often referred to as lacking diversity, various regions of the state have a rich history of cultural heritages, including Idaho Black history, Chinese, Basque, Japanese, Mexican, Hawaiian Islander and European cultures. Although the populations of these distinct cultures remain very small when compared with larger states, their presence and cultural heritages can be experienced in Idaho.
Stories of diasporas across Idaho in past and current contexts from peoples of diverse backgrounds and experiences like my family’s story of survival, resilience and fortitude further inspired the development of the IMID to experience the world in Idaho. Founded in 2018 and established as a nonprofit in 2019, the IMID will connect Idaho communities to cultures from around the world.
For people of the cultural groups represented in the IMID, the museum becomes a beacon of inspiration, hope and source of pride.
For those who may not identify with a specific culture, the IMID serves as that special destination – an educational hub where local, national and international visitors come to learn about the human journey stories from around the world, discover their own personal connections, and explore how to become an active part of their communities and relevant topics no matter where they live.
Dr. Palina Louangketh, a former refugee from Laos, teaches at Boise State University, leads equity and strategic partnerships at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and is the founder and executive director of the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora based in Boise.