When Bill Brulotte sends his 10-year-old daughter to school each morning, he knows she’s getting a good education.
It’s not only the curriculum and teachers, but also the children beside her.
The Magic Valley has become a melting pot of people from a multitude of cultures and countries who speak different languages.
Some come as refugees from war-torn homelands, and others immigrate for educational or work opportunities.
Either way, it opens the community of Twin Falls to the world.
The Twin Falls School District alone has 105 refugee students and 440 more with limited English proficiency.
Twenty languages are spoken by district students, and that’s considered low. The district once had 28 languages spoken.
But Brulotte said his daughter “is much more enriched for having those cultures. It has a been a great exposure for our kids in this community. ...They give their culture to their new community, and in return we give back to them.”
The College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center has settled 2,250 refugees in the Magic Valley since 1994.
They come from Burundi, Burma, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Iran, among other countries.
But as they face the challenges of finding a home and work and learning English — all while assimilating into America — they also work hard to preserve their cultures for themselves and generations to come.
Here are the stories of three such immigrants and how they work to maintain their native identities and cultures.
Bringing African Traditions to Southern Idaho
Winnie Christensen was at speech and debate practice in high school when she made one of her first discoveries about American culture.
Women here shave their legs.
“My friend said, ‘Oh, Winnie. You have hair. You don’t shave? Oh, you have to shave,’” Winnie recalled.
Shaving legs was a foreign concept for the 16-year-old transplant from Kenya living in Blackfoot, Idaho.
In Kenya, she said, “There is nothing more beautiful than when the hair on a woman’s leg is smoothed down with Vaseline or lotion.”
At first, she refused to buckle to her new culture’s norms. But eventually, she started shaving her legs and plucking her eyebrows.
Despite some culture shock, Winnie said, the transition to life in Idaho was pretty smooth.
As in Kenya, where everyone says hello, Idaho people are friendly, she said.
Now she has lived in Idaho for more than 10 years and in Twin Falls for three.
She chose Idaho because her mother was a nurse in Blackfoot. Her father, a veterinary surgeon, stayed in Kenya.
As the only Kenyan at Blackfoot High, Winnie often enlightened her peers about her country and culture.
They would ask, “Do you wear real clothes?” “Does everybody wear shoes?”
She said, “Africa is more than the ‘Lion King.’ What is Africa? It’s a lot of cultures making a country.”
Other surprises included discovering she knew more about U.S. government than most of her classmates.
And she had never heard of a study guide for exams.
“It’s like a cheat sheet for me? What?” Winnie remembers thinking.
But the food was one of the toughest adjustments.
“In Africa, we do not eat a lot of meat, only on special occasions. In Kenya, we eat a lot of corn and beans. We love to sip some tea at 4 p.m.”
Because of her experiences, Winnie has become a big advocate for promoting and preserving one’s culture.
“People forget their culture and where they came from, and they don’t appreciate it. It (culture) makes people feel empowered and proud of where they are from,” she said.
In August, Winnie helped organize the first-ever Miss Africa Idaho Pageant, held at the CSI Fine Arts Theater.
As in mainstream pageants, the contestants vied for scholarships, promoted platforms and had a talent contest.
But it was also a cultural event to promote and educate the public on Africa’s cultural heritages.
Contestants had to be of first- to third-generation African descent.
Pocatello’s Davina Hull, Miss Eritrea, was crowned the winner Sept. 23.
Winnie has another reason to preserve her culture: for her 17-month-old son, Val Kitavi, “warrior” in Swahili.
Winnie said her six names tell people where she’s from.
Winfred is her Christian name; Mwende (loved one in Swahili) her middle name; Katosi (small one) her name from her grandmother; Kimeu (morning dew) her father’s last name; Mwanthi, her clan’s name; and Christensen, her married name.
She met her husband, Antone Christensen, in the student union at Idaho State University, where she earned a degree in political science and international relations.
She invited him to African Night, an event organized by the ISU African Student Alliance.
Antone said he noticed her immediately.
“A cute black girl in Idaho is not common,” he said. “She’s beautiful. And besides that, she’s very talented and intelligent. All the things you like in a wife.”
Antone grew up in a small town in east Idaho where all his classmates were white.
“I wasn’t really exposed to culture until I went on a mission to southern Georgia,” he said.
They dated six years before marrying in 2012.
In their Twin Falls home, labels are on everything from the television to picture frames. Winnie is trying to teach them Swahili. One day they’ll visit Kenya.
“I read them and try to know what they are, but you can’t just pick up an east African language in Twin Falls, Idaho,” Antone said.
After he learns these words, Winnie said, they will string them into sentences.
The word “samaki” is taped to the fish tank. “Bafu” is on the bathroom door, and “picha” is pasted on a corner of their family photo.
“It started in the bedroom and moved into other parts of the house,” she said.
And while Winnie teaches Antone her language, he tries to teach her how Americans speak.
That often starts debates, and the dictionary is the go- to tie-breaker.
Kenya was colonized by the British, so she uses proper English, such as cutlery instead of silverware. She described the county fair carnival as having “ridiculous rides,” which made her husband smile.
“I think I’m blessed. I have a good life, a great life, actually,” Winnie said.
A Role Model for Higher Education
As a Mexican-American in Twin Falls, Salma Miramontes said she never felt completely part of American culture or Mexican culture. She sees herself as a blend.
Spanish is her first language, but her family speaks English at home, or Spanglish, a slang mixture of both.
In middle school, she said, a teacher accused her of plagiarizing her science essay on jellyfish.
“You have an accent. This isn’t your work,” the teacher told her.
Such experiences haven’t fazed her though. Today, Miramontes is a senior at Boise State University and will graduate with a degree in accounting.
She said she started to feel passionate about encouraging higher education soon after she turned 15.
Like most Mexican girls, she had a quinceanera, one of the most important traditions in Mexican culture.
“A quinceanera is a really big deal. It’s not only a time when you are considered a woman, but also part of the community.
“People start knowing your name and who you are. Now they start acknowledging you not as a girl, but as a woman.”
Miramontes said she wanted to use her new status as a role model and mentor to young Hispanic women.
And she wants to support those women in college.
“I’ve always been dedicated to schoolwork. My parents always said, ‘Do your thing and do your career.’ I don’t have to get a husband to live a comfortable life.”
But while her parents have been supportive, Miramontes said, her culture has the “machismo” view that a woman’s education is less important than a man’s.
She said she really saw that attitude while studying in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“They push guys more to get an education,” Miramontes said. “The Hispanic woman should be cooking or raising kids and being a stay-at-home mom.
“Once you have a husband, you’ve fulfilled your goal as a woman. No one is going to say, ‘Oh, you didn’t go to school.’”
But what you teach a woman, you teach a community, she said.
So when Miramontes heard about the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Pageant, she felt compelled to participate.
It’s geared toward Hispanic women ages 17 to 21 who want to continue their education. More than 140 women have participated over the years.
The pageant has five categories: essay, interview, poise and beauty, sportswear and talent. The most important are interview and essay.
Miramontes was the 2013 Hispanic Heritage Queen. During the contest, she felt it was important to answer questions in Spanish. For her talent, she read a monologue from the perspective of a farm worker.
She also helped mentor contestants for the 13th annual Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Pageant in August.
When she decides to marry and have children, she said, she wants them to have an upbringing like hers.
“I want them to have the best of both worlds.”
Hla Htay attends language classes for two reasons:
Htay is learning English to better communicate with co-workers and thrive in Twin Falls, where the Burmese refugee has lived for 19 months.
The other reason was running around a friend’s front yard Aug. 6.
Htay wants to be able to talk with son Aung Thu, 7, who has picked up English a lot more quickly than his father.
Aung even teaches him new English words. But Htay doesn’t want his son to forget his own language, either.
“If he ever goes back to Burma, he can get around. So he can speak with family in Burma. I wanted him to know our culture also,” Htay said.
“I understand I need to learn to speak (English). It is difficult to understand somewhat. It’s difficult to understand different accents.”
Twice a week, about 20 adults gather at the home of Rya Levy in Twin Falls to attend evening ESL classes.
Less than a mile away, about 10 children study Burmese.
The classes were formed by the American-Burmese Friendship Organization, which started as a social club in May but morphed into a nonprofit with a board of directors.
“The importance of learning the alphabet is so the children can gain the experience and knowledge to keep the traditions of where they are from,” said John Naing, one of the group’s founders.
Naing said he came up with the idea of separate classes so adults could better assimilate without the children forgetting their culture.
“If programs were available like this, I would have been able to relate better to the culture I was born in,” Naing said. “I’m a true believer that if you know where you are going, you have to know where you came from. A person should always be involved with their roots.”
Naing emigrated to Idaho in 1991 with his mother, Kyi Kyi Whiting, and his two younger brothers.
Kyi Kyi remembers how quickly her children picked up English, while she struggled to learn.
“They picked it up really fast,” she said. “They started school and in two weeks they speaking English.”
“It’s easier for kids who are versed in their mother language because the brain at that age is memorizing,” said Brulotte, the Twin Falls School District’s director of federal programs, policies and grants.
The district has two newcomer centers to help students with limited English, and 39 students now are in those centers at Lincoln Elementary and Robert Stuart Middle School. The number fluctuates constantly.
Kyi Kyi said she spoke Burmese in the home, but her children answered in English. She didn’t stop them because she didn’t want to impede them from learning their new language.
Naing was in sixth grade when he started attending Buhl Middle School.
“We didn’t speak English when we first got here. A lot of our experiences were learned with friends and at school and on television like Sesame Street,” Naing said. “I was old enough that I could remember the traditions. I was also excited to learn a new culture.”
Today, he still can speak, read and write in Burmese.
But Kyi Kyi said her two youngest sons, Chris and Rangen, struggle to do so.
When Rangen visited Burma, he walked past relatives holding a sign with his name on it, Kyi Kyi said, because it was written in Burmese.
When her parents visited Idaho, they asked that only Burmese be spoken.
“At that time, I felt a little regret because they (her other sons) didn’t speak it,” she said.
Burmese refugees in the Friendship Organization decided they needed to start a school.
“They pretend a lot,” Kyi Kyi said of the refugees. “They always say, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Some of the volunteers would say that they say ‘yes,’ but they don’t know what they are talking about when asked more questions.”
A major challenge for the school is finding a place big enough for all the students. For now, they meet at the home of Levy and Whiting.
Another challenge is finding a class time that fits everyone’s schedules. Many adults who want to learn also work full-time jobs.
“If the parent don’t know English, they won’t catch up. Even though I know English, I struggle a lot. I struggled because I was a single parent,” Kyi Kyi said.
Refugees get help from the CSI Refugee Center for three months, but they must find jobs to sustain their families.
“The big problem is that many of them need to get jobs to make money, so there isn’t a lot of time to take these classes,” Kyi Kyi said. “And those who know some English are not (used) to speaking.
“Most are factory workers so they deal with all these machines. They only talk to the American people by saying, ‘Hi, bye, fine or how are you?’”
In Burma, English isn’t taught till fifth grade, she said.
“Some people here, they don’t finish (school) because they were in refugee camps.”
And because many do not have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the U.S., the Burmese community becomes their family.
Naing said that is why his dream is that by time the children learning Burmese are teenagers, the Friendship Organization will have a youth center for them.