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News / Northwest

Refugee wins fight to change Idaho law on hair braiding

By Sally Krutzig, Idaho Statesman
Published: April 29, 2023, 6:03am

BOISE, Idaho — One year ago, Sonia Ekemon, 41, led the fight to make it legal for Idahoans to braid hair without a cosmetology license.

After the law passed in March 2022, Ekemon launched one of Idaho’s first hair braiding salons. And business has been booming.

Since opening African Braiding Salon in Meridian in September, her clientele has more than doubled, she’s gotten off food stamps and she’s already dreaming of expanding.

Though she has lived in Boise for 23 years, Ekemon’s connection to braiding began when she was just 12 years old, living in a Benin refugee camp after escaping Togo. More than 200,000 Togolese fled to neighboring countries in the 1990s to escape violent government crackdowns against democratic reforms, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Life wasn’t easy in the refugee camp. Hunger dominated Ekemon’s seven years there. She remembered eating leftovers from strangers’ plates and fishing food out of trash cans on the street.

Many turned to prostitution to survive, Ekemon said. She saw girls become pregnant in the camp at alarmingly young ages.

“Imagine being in a refugee camp and you cannot feed yourself,” Ekemon said. “And then you get pregnant on top of that. That was my biggest fear.”

When her sister became pregnant, Ekemon decided she needed to find something to ensure that wouldn’t happen to her. She learned how to braid and quickly became so good that people would pay her to do their hair.

“When I’m hungry, I can go on the street and do somebody’s hair,” Ekemon said.

Ekemon eventually left the camp to earn a professional hair-braiding license in Benin as a teenager before immigrating to the United States in 2000.

She had hoped to continue braiding in her new home state of Idaho until she found out it was one of five states where it was illegal without a cosmetology license. Ekemon said it felt like she’d been stripped of part of her identity.

“This is me, this is what I do,” Ekemon said. “When they said I cannot braid, it shocked me a lot. Because I’m like, if you know what I go through to learn how to braid — it’s my culture, it meant a lot to me — you will let me have this. But I never gave up. I kept trying to do whatever the state wanted me to do.”

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Getting a license, however, was financially out of reach for Ekemon. Idaho cosmetology licenses require 1,600 hours of training and can cost up to $20,000, according to the state licensing board. The state doesn’t require cosmetology schools to teach “African-style” braiding. Instead, hair braiders had to learn complicated techniques like how to cut, color and chemically treat hair — even if they had no intention of ever providing those services.

But money became especially tight when Ekemon’s husband died of liver cancer in 2018, leaving Ekemon’s job at the Idaho Central Credit Union as her family’s only source of income. Needing a second job, Ekemon began illegally braiding hair out of people’s homes.

“I have a mortgage and three little kids that I take care of and have to feed,” Ekemon said at a news conference last year. “This is what I have to do to feed my kids. I really need this.”

She never stopped dreaming of opening a hair braiding salon, but didn’t know how to make that possible considering Idaho’s law. Her friends found a solution: Ekemon would sue the state of Idaho. They also found her a lawyer.

“I told the lawyers all of my story,” Ekemon said. “They’re like: ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got a good case. We would love to work with you.’ That’s how they came all the way from California to help me fight the lawsuit. It was no easy journey. But because I believed in myself, that’s why I had the courage to fight this law.”

When Ekemon and two other hair braiders announced the lawsuit from the steps of the Idaho Capitol Building last year, it was the first time many legislators had heard of the issue. Ekemon, it seemed, wasn’t the only one who thought the law was problematic. A bill was quickly drafted to make hair braiding without a license legal. It passed unanimously in both chambers.