Millions of Congolese have fled from a nation of incomprehensible violence and poverty amid an amazing wealth of natural resources that are at the root of those problems.
What should Missoula be aware of if it wants to help new refugee arrivals transition from that world, a young man asked Tuesday night on the University of Montana campus.
African cultures are deeply community oriented, said Paul Robinson, who as a son of missionaries was born in the Belgian Congo and raised his family there.
“I think what is most needed is a sense of welcome and embrace and community, whether they find it in churches, whether they find it in neighborhoods, or wherever. And I think that is what is so missing in our culture right now,” Robinson said.
Robinson was a guest speaker at a program called “Conflict, Poverty, and Identity in the Democratic Republic of Congo” that drew a standing-room only crowd of more than 250 to the UC Theater. It was the first in a series of presentations Soft Landing Missoula plans to stage to promote understanding of the families from refugee camps around the world who started coming to town last month.
Four Congolese families have started “living, working, going to school, attending church and, of course, playing soccer,” said Soft Landing director Mary Poole.
The idea of the series isn’t to talk about the new arrivals to Missoula but about the circumstances from which they’ve fled, Poole explained.
Robinson spent a career studying Africa and teaching it at universities in New York and Illinois. He lives in Missoula now, returning from Congo last week even as another round of violence broke out in his home town there.
The people of Congo live in a constant state of fear and anxiety in the equatorial country that’s as large as the United States east of the Mississippi, he said. It’s a nation with 1.5 million square miles of the second-largest rain forest on the planet. Its waters, including the vast Congo River, could power all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But a history of enslavement, exploitation, corrupt leadership and civil war has resulted in one of the most violent places in the world and what the United Nations has called “the worst place on earth to be a woman.”
Robinson traced the history of that violence as far back as 1552, when the African slave trade began. Today’s Congo is ensnared in all four of what author Paul Collier called poverty traps in his book "The Bottom Billion." They're the traps of conflict, natural resources, bad governance and being landlocked with bad neighbors.
Living in those conditions you give up planning, dreaming or even thinking “because it’s a struggle to maintain a daily existence,” Robinson said.
“And when you get in that position, you begin to feel like your life is not worth living. And if you feel like your life is not worth living, how are you going to feel about another person’s life?”
Molly Short Carr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s new Missoula office, talked about the day-to-day struggles she encountered in refugee camps in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania while working as deputy director of the Church World Service office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Food, water, shelter, education and medical care are at a premium, Carr said, and that has produced “the most incredibly strong individuals I’ve ever had the experience to work with.”
After 90 minutes the floor was opened to questions: What is the process to get refugees out of camps? Talk about the role of American militarism and weapons trade in Congo and elsewhere in Africa. How deeply is China involved? What's the criteria used to decide who gets resettled?
Cedric Hames of Missoula drew catcalls when he stepped to the microphone.
“I just want to say you spent an hour and a half telling us about all the problems these people have got in their country, and now you’re going to dump it on us here in Missoula,” Hames said. “Our women won’t be able to walk the street, our kids won’t be able to play.”
“It’s people like you that make it unsafe,” one woman shouted.
“You hoot and howl now,” Hames said. “Just remember that I said that.”
As the program drew to a close, Robinson spoke about the warm welcome the first refugees to Missoula have received.
“I understand Molly and Mary have seen just this outpouring of generosity, outpouring of welcome,” he said. “What I would say is, how do we sustain that? And I bet you this. I guarantee you this. We will learn from them what it means to be community. We will regain something that we’ve lost.”