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A Syrian refugee child sits on his father’s shoulder as they wait to get on a bus that will take them to a center for asylum seekers, after crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary in Roszke, southern Hungary, early Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

The Associated Press

Ray Risho helped oppressed people in the West Bank and Gaza during the 1988 intifada, and he and his wife have helped adults with disabilities here in Missoula.

"I've always had a focus on doing whatever I can to ... advocate for the oppressed – both Susie and I (have) – oppressed or marginalized people, not only in the world, but in our community," Risho said Monday.

Now, Risho is part of an effort in Missoula to help Syrian refugees in the midst of a growing humanitarian crisis. In Europe, more and more families are fleeing war in Syria and leaving poorly supplied refugee camps in other countries.

A group in Missoula hopes to bring 10 of those families here. It's just one of the ideas the group is discussing, but it's personal to Risho, and it's already showing the giving spirit of the community.

Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, said a handful of people came together last week who are unconnected but share a concern for the refugee crisis.

"All of a sudden, we have actions that are happening and people wanting to participate and money coming in. It's heartwarming that that kind of response is out there," Mulligan-Dague said.

***

Risho got involved with the effort because Mulligan-Dague called him knowing his Syrian heritage. Both his mother and his father were born in Damascus.

"I can't get involved in everything, naturally, but this is one that she felt I would be interested in, and I definitely am," Risho said.

He grew up in Rhode Island with his grandma in the house, and the two were roommates when he was in high school. She was Assyrian Orthodox, he said, one of the oldest Christian faiths in the world.

At night, Risho would hear his grandmother scream in her sleep, but she never talked with him about her nightmares.

In Missoula a couple of years ago, he was talking over dinner with his friend Mehrdad Kia, an expert on the Middle East. When Kia learned about his grandma, he told Risho about the pogroms in Turkey.

"It was so graphic that all of a sudden, my grandmother's nightmares became reality, and I lost it right there in the Depot (restaurant)," Risho said. "The reality of that kind of persecution hit me."

He finally had a better understanding of the experiences his grandmother had, and the reason for her persecution. She was a target because of her faith, a story that's playing out in today's conflicts. 

"Many of the people who are fleeing are Christian minorities," Risho said.

So he wants to help, both as part of his ethic of ministry helping people on the margins, and as part of his long effort to pull back the veil on the Middle East. He's done so with his family's restaurants in Missoula and in sharing his travel experiences.

Syria was pluralistic because of the dictatorship, he said, and he remembers walking around in Aleppo years ago and seeing a massive Armenian cathedral across the street from a mosque.

Then, he said, Aleppo felt just like Paris.

***

The idea to bring families to Missoula is an important one to City Councilwoman Emily Bentley, but it's not the only plan in the works. Bentley got involved after being contacted by Holly Truitt, who is working on the project, called Soft Landing Missoula.

"We're talking about the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and there has to be a paradigm shift. Every person in the world has to start looking at immigration differently," Bentley said.

Missoula is ripe for action because it has helped other people in crisis in the past, and it's a welcoming place, she said. Hmong families have settled here, as have people from Belarus, she said.

"Those people and those communities that come here add tremendous culture and tremendous flavor to our now shared heritage," Bentley said.

She also said Missoula can be a beacon.

"We wanted to be an example to the rest of the country, to put pressure on our federal leaders to allow people escaping conflict to come here and also for other communities to open up," Bentley said.

As a member of the Missoula City Council, she's helping with another piece of the effort, one to support refugees in Missoula's sister city in Germany, Neckargemund.

***

Migrants are flooding into Germany, and the Peace Center's Mulligan-Dague said a city right next door to Neckargemund already has refugees. The Peace Center is raising money to send to Missoula's sister city as it confronts the crisis, too.

"We want to make that connection, just to make the idea of sister cities more real for people," she said.

The Peace Center also aims to embark on an educational component to teach people more about the crisis, she said.

The efforts are nascent, and plans are still being formulated, she said. Those who want to help should contact her at the Peace Center at 543-3955 or peace@jrpc.org; they can also join the Soft Landing Missoula group on Facebook.

"We have an obligation to step up just as fellow human beings, to reach out in some way to help them," Mulligan-Dague said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian