Nearly 100 refugees from war-ravaged countries have been settled in Missoula by the International Rescue Committee in the past year, getting jobs and building new lives. They might not be here if it weren’t for the power of photojournalism.
In September 2015, a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi drowned as he and his family tried to escape civil war by crowding onto a small inflatable boat in Turkey and trying to get to safety in Greece.
A photographer for a Turkish newspaper named Nilufer Demir took a photo of the little boy’s body, which had washed up on a beach. His tiny sneakers were still on his feet. The photo went viral, and appeared on websites and newspapers all over the world, becoming a symbol of all refugees who died or risked their lives trying to reach safety in Europe and the West.
One of the people who was struck by the photo was Mary Poole, a Missoula woman who was aghast at the scale of the global refugee crisis. Because of that picture, Poole formed Soft Landing Missoula, a coalition of volunteers dedicated to trying to help in some way.
They succeeded in convincing the International Rescue Committee to open its first Montana office in decades in Missoula, and a slow but steady trickle of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq have filtered in since then.
On Feb. 1, 2016, an anti-refugee protest was held in Missoula, which spurred an opposite “March Against Hate” a few weeks later. Later in February, the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners drafted a letter telling the federal government that they were concerned about the risks of bringing Syrian refugees to the Bitterroot Valley.
The commissioners were responding to citizen concerns. At one packed meeting, a man told the commission that “ISIS will come after our women” and another man said that “Islam is at war with the U.S.” Yet another woman was concerned that refugees would try to prevent American women from having jobs.
It was a period of high tension in Missoula as the IRC office opened and began the work of settling refugees into the community. On Monday, City Club Missoula hosted a forum featuring Poole and IRC resettlement director Jen Barile, who gave an update on resettlement efforts in Missoula. To date, the IRC has placed 32 families comprising 91 individuals since the office opened in 2016.
Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of United Way of Missoula County, introduced the pair by recalling how divisive the subject was the last time City Club held a forum on refugees in 2016.
“There was a fair degree of tension in the room, and a lot of that seems to have settled down,” she said.
Poole and Barile both stressed that all of the refugees settled here have become productive members of society, helping local businesses fill hiring needs and working to learn English.
“There is always a lot of talk about refugees being a drain on the economy, but in fact a lot of research says the opposite,” Barile said. “We work with an employer that has hired 12 or 13 refugees. And it’s not because they want to feel good, but because they have a need they can’t fill.”
Missoula County has a very low unemployment rate right now, and many businesses have had trouble finding workers. The refugees have therefore been a welcome sight for local employers who can’t find enough labor, according to Poole. She also said that refugees, historically, start new businesses at double the rate of American citizens. She said several locals are starting to get their feet under them and are hoping to create jobs and start their own businesses.
“They are interested in becoming employers,” Poole said.
One woman has gotten a good-paying job as an engineer, but her only problem is studying for the certification tests that are conducted in English. Poole said that because of Missoula’s strong network of supporters, the woman has found a “study buddy” who also is preparing for the test.
Barile said that one of the things the State Department requires for the refugees is brand-new beds, so they are always seeking donations of that sort.
They concluded their talk by saying that Missoula has benefited in numerous ways from the refugees besides becoming more culturally diverse. Poole said that the local school system has been able to get more students, not just refugees’ kids, access to one-on-one tutoring after recognizing a need because of the new foreign students.
“One of the many wonderful and beautiful things about resettlement is being a part of what the larger needs are in our community and how we can benefit everyone in need, not just refugees,” Poole said.