Forty-six women, men and children from war-torn lands in Africa and Iraq found new homes in Missoula in the final five months of 2016.
Refugee resettlement by the International Rescue Committee and volunteers of Soft Landing Missoula has become a movement near and dear to the city’s heart, while many across the state and nation voice opposition that matched in passion that of those doing the resettling.
The IRC returned to town in July, more than 30 years after bringing to western Montana the last of some 550 refugees from Southeast Asia, most of them Hmong who supported U.S. efforts in the secret war in Laos.
The latest round coincided with a contentious election year in which President-elect Donald Trump assumed a strong stance against admitting Muslim immigrants and those from Syria, but left the question of most other nationalities unsettled.
Incumbent Ryan Zinke, in his successful run for Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House, joined a number of Republican lawmakers calling for Syrian refugees to be blocked from entering the U.S. until screening can be tightened. Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines expressed a similar view, as did Greg Gianforte in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic governor Steve Bullock.
Meanwhile, the 12 families in Missoula all settled into permanent housing after initial concerns of a shortage.
They're handling the winter weather better than expected, said Molly Short Carr, executive director of the IRC office in Missoula.
“We had one family arrive in, like, the worst cold we’ve had so far and they seemed to survive,” Carr said.
The bulk of the arrivals are Congolese, many of whom were born in refugee camps in East Africa after their parents fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In all, 27 arrived in August and September.
Since the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, the Missoula IRC, one of nine major federal resettlement contractors operating in the U.S. and overseas, received four Iraqis in October, eight people from the northeast African nation of Eritrea in November and another four Eritreans in mid-December.
On Dec. 22, a day when the west coast states of Washington, Oregon and California received a total of 138 refugees – 28 from Syria – Missoula got its last three of the year and its first of Ethiopian nationality.
Ethiopia borders Eritrea to the south, and the two nations are among the poorest in the world. Both are still feeling the effects of a border war in 1998-2000. Soft Landing Missoula, which has put on two educational programs since the early displaced families arrived, plans another for February, this one about the conflict and culture of the two nations.
The 19 refugees who’ve arrived in the first three months of the fiscal year puts Missoula behind pace to reach the goal set out in Missoula’s “Reception and Placement Abstract” filed in May, before Carr arrived in town to open the IRC office. But she said she sees nothing amiss.
“Arrivals come sometimes in ebbs and flows,” she said. “I think it’s about right if we’re going to do anywhere from 125-150” by the end of September.
Mary Poole of Soft Landing, who publishes a periodic electronic newsletter for volunteers and subscribers, said Friday she was writing from the group’s new office and community center on Stephens Avenue.
“I am listening to (volunteer) Greta teach 9 eager and engaged students about the different types of lines on the road as they prepare to take their written driving tests,” Poole wrote. “This might be my favorite class.”
In a previous update she highlighted a 15-year-old girl from the Congo who “lived her whole life behind a barbed-wire fence in a dusty refugee camp in Tanzania.”
“Now,” Poole said, “she’s a high-school student in Missoula, and she’s picking up English so fast that her parents look to her for translation.”
A 12-year-old boy “honed his mad soccer skills in that same refugee camp,” Poole went on. He’s already made the Missoula Strikers team – “and became instant friends with his teammates.”
Theirs are the kinds of stories Missoula county and city officials had in mind when they threw their support behind reopening a resettlement office.
County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said in an email that her office hasn’t been in contact with any of the refugees but “recent media reports show Soft Landing is doing a great job and community members being very welcoming to the families.”
“These refugee families have been through a lot so having a safe and supportive community to relocate (in) is a blessing for them,” Curtiss said. “In return the fabric of the Missoula community has been made even more beautiful with the culture, experiences, music and lives of our new neighbors from around the globe.”