They came from a crowded refugee camp in East Africa to the strange mountain town of Missoula.
It wasn’t as smoky last August as it is this one, and the mornings were already chilly. Mary Poole tells of taking the family from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first six of 117 refugees to arrive in Montana in the past year, to the Farmers Market on North Higgins.
“I remember walking down the street with them taking it all in,” said Poole, the executive director of Soft Landing Missoula. “Now we have vendors at the Farmers Market. It’s pretty exciting.”
A year later the marketers include two families from Iraq and two from Eritrea, selling coffee and falafel; baklava and an Eritrean flatbread called injera.
Others, young and old, have made their marks on the soccer scene in Missoula. In June, Soft Landing sponsored a World Refugee Cup soccer tournament, community meal and traditional African drum and dance concert to celebrate the city's growing refugee population.
Five Congolese formed a theater troupe called the Missoula Unity Artist Group and put on a play in April at the University Center Ballroom called “When One Becomes Many.” The idea took root in the refugee camps and was meant to reflect the hard, divisive life there.
“From the minute they got here they talked about how they wanted to do a play,” said Greta Bates, a mentor through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and volunteer with Soft Landing Missoula. Bates was on mentor teams for some of the first Congolese and counts all of them as new friends and teachers.
“They’ve just been able to teach me a lot about their culture,” Bates said. “The soccer has been a fun connector, especially with the other international communities in Missoula.”
All the refugee families have housing, and 95 percent of the households have an employed adult in the home, Jen Barile said.
“That’s huge,” said Barile, who took over as director of the IRC’s Missoula office on April 1. "Folks are employed, and over 30 children are enrolled in school. They’ve been having a remarkable summer doing fun sports camps and activities and they're getting out in the community."
The children of Biniam Adhanom, who holds two college degrees, and his wife Helen Reda of Eritrea reveled in their first snow, and the new Eritreans found a home in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.
“There are folks with their driver's licenses," Barile said. "They’re really becoming part of Missoula.”
The first five refugee families to arrive in August and September were Congolese. In November men, women and children who fled the despotic nation of Eritrea in northeast Africa began to touch down. Another influx this spring pushed the total from Eritrea to around 45, Barile said.
Congolese number in the mid-30s. Iraqis make up the third-largest segment of arrivals with a dozen, followed by Syrians (nine) and Ethiopians (seven).
Not all 117 refugees remain. Five of the original 30 families have left, fleeing an exceptionally cold winter or joining relatives and those with similar backgrounds elsewhere.
The in-flow ended, at least for now, on June 6 and 7, when the last two Eritrean families deplaned. Last month the Supreme Court temporarily allowed President Donald Trump’s travel ban to stand, though the government must make it easier for people from six mostly Muslim countries to enter the United States. Those nations are Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
“There were some changes in who could come in,” Barile said. “You could come if you had bona fide relationships and the definition of bona fide has changed.”
Eight families were in the pipeline for Missoula in June, but only two fit the guideline for “bona fide relationships,” she said.
“So things have slowed. Families that were told they could come to us can’t come,” said Barile. “We do have a few families in our pipeline through the end of September, which is the end of the fiscal year.”
October is also when Trump will announce his cap on refugee admissions. Last year the Obama administration set the limit at 110,000 for fiscal year 2017. Trump reduced it to 50,000 shortly after his inauguration. That number was surpassed in July but has inched up by fewer than 1,000 since. Refugee arrivals in the U.S. dwindled from 2,852 in June to 1,224 in July to just 497 in the first three weeks of August.
“At the beginning it was hard,” Bates said last week. “They were so showcased.”
Refugee supporters, opponents and media paid close attention to the newcomers. Would housing and jobs be found for the influx? English tutors and interpreters? What unknown health concerns were coming Missoula’s way?
Many of those issues have been worked out, but challenges remain.
"We're looking for jobs that people don't have to use language skills, like housekeeping. Walmart has hired a handful, and Jiffy Lube," Barile said. "The majority are doing hospitality jobs."
One refugee with a master's degree is teaching English at the University of Montana. Another with a bachelor's degree is working as a social worker with young people.
“The kids are picking up English like I can’t believe,” said Bates, who previously worked with refugees in Vermont. “What I’ve noticed here is that all the refugees I’ve come in contact with, the adults as well the children, are really trying to learn English. They want private tutors and they all want help. I feel like the English is progressing faster than expected.”
“We’re watching videos of kids who came with no English and three months later are reading full sentences,” Poole said. “The kids are really participating and thriving here in Missoula. It’s been amazing to see their resiliency.”
Soft Landing Missoula formed in September 2015 when a group of women in a book club launched a grassroots community effort to bring refugees to Montana. The IRC, which first opened an office in 1979 to resettle Hmong people from war-torn Laos, announced plans to reopen one in March 2016.
Soft Landing is under the fiscal sponsorship of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, with all funding coming from community members and small foundations. It has rented office and gathering space in a suite on Stephens Avenue since last November and has steadily expanded its role in helping refugee families, Poole said.
The group of mostly volunteers is planning its next event during national Welcoming Week, Sept. 15-24, in which each Missoula refugee community will share traditions and culture through a variety of events. The Congolese will be putting on another play and some of the films produced by refugees in the New Neighbors project will be showcased. Poole said more details will soon be available on softlandingmissoula.org and its Facebook page.
Molly Short-Carr guided the foundling IRC office in Missoula as executive director until January, when she stepped down and moved to the eastern United States to be closer to family. Patrick Poulin was appointed to replace her. Poulin lives and heads the IRC office in Salt Lake City.
Barile, who came to the Missoula office as its first caseworker, is director and heads the government-funded operation out of the Solstice building on Liberty Lane in northwest Missoula.
It’s uncertain how long the hiatus of refugee arrivals will last, but both groups are making the most of it.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Barile said. “It is unfortunate that we’re not receiving more families, families trying to flee conflict areas of the world. But it does give us the ability to serve our clients better. We’re still putting systems in place and building relationships with community partners.”
Finding mental health support for refugees is a challenge, for instance.
“It can take quite awhile to connect with a community partner that is able to support language interpretation," said Barile, "and it takes time for the IRC to educate partners to what unique mental challenges refugees might be facing that might be different from other clients.”