Molly Short Carr wasn’t long in Africa in 2014 when she got her first view of the Gihembe Refugee Camp.
It was winter in the mountains of Rwanda, the wet and chilly season.
As cultural orientation coordinator for the U.S. Refugee Admission Program’s Refugee Support Center, Carr had traveled from headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, to check on an English as a Second Language program for Congolese in the pipeline for resettlement to the United States.
Gihembe is more than a mile above sea level in the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” It was morning when Carr and companions set out for the camp.
“We were walking in a cloud. Everything was just foggy,” Carr recalled. “Then it broke a little bit, and you could see straight across the valley to where the camp was.
“That was the moment I realized – refugees were living in this cold African winter environment and they have this minimal amount of shelter and protection on the side of what we’d call a mountain. In Rwanda they call it a hill.”
Carr, the International Rescue Committee’s new director in Missoula, related the story Friday from her phone, just after crossing MacDonald Pass on her way back from a meeting in Helena.
A sparsely furnished office awaited her in the Solstice Building off West Broadway. She and Bob Johnson of Seattle, who’s helping prepare Missoula for the IRC’s first Congolese refugees due in the next couple of months, had an interview scheduled with a finalist for the office’s caseworker position later in the afternoon.
Carr; husband Jason, a software engineer, and their “very goofy” long-haired German Shepherd arrived from Nairobi on the evening of July 8 to usher in a new refugee era in Missoula.
“The first thing we did was go to Bridge Pizza,” she said. “We were craving American pizza for two years and we were like, we need pizza now.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since Johnson and the IRC first opened a resettlement office in Missoula to handle the influx of Laotian Hmong fleeing Communist rule after the Vietnam War.
It’s a different world now, but one in even more dire straits: War, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution are displacing people around the globe at a rate unprecedented even in the aftermath of World War II. The United Nations reported last year that by the end of 2014 refugee numbers reached 59.5 million, compared to 37.5 million a decade earlier.
The sometimes disastrous flights of Syrians to Europe and other Middle East countries have grabbed much of the attention, and concern for the potential spread of terrorist acts by radicalized Muslims is spiking after the Obama administration stepped up efforts to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. by the end of September.
But the Congolese in East Africa refugee camps such as Gihembe are largely Christian, Carr said, and most of those in the Rwandan camp and others in Uganda and Tanzania who await new lives in western Montana are Seventh Day Adventists.
They’re there due to ethnic rather than religious persecution, Carr said, in a nation made up of many different tribes and ethnicities.
She hasn’t received details about who, when and how many will come to Missoula. Johnson said Missoula can expect to receive 100-125 refugees in the first year, depending on family sizes.
Carr has heard “the full spectrum” of opposition to resettled refugees.
“They’re terrorists, they’re jumping the queue ahead of others, we should take care of our own,” she said. “I’m sure you get all of those, but that happens everywhere. Like anything, there’s going to be people who are pro and those who are con as well.
“Overwhelmingly, though, once people experience and engage, they’ll understand and I think they’ll see the benefits to the community as well.”
“The really different piece about Missoula," Johnson said, "is there’s such a huge group within Soft Landing and from outside that are really wanting to help and wanting to get involved, even before the refugees arrive. One of the problems they’ve had is that we haven’t had any refugees for them, so now they’re pretty excited that we actually can see them on the horizon finally."
Carr said her first two weeks in Missoula have been nothing short of amazing.
“The community has been so welcoming, not only to me but to all the special service providers and volunteers,” she said. “It’s so heartwarming."
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Carr’s first job out of Canisius College in her hometown of Buffalo, New York, was as legal services coordinator working with asylum seekers on the U.S.-Canada border. That was in 2002.
In 2005 she opened and directed a field office in Albany for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Then it was home to Buffalo in 2008 for an eight-year stint as executive director of a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency.
“We settled about 450 refugees per year, but we assisted about 5,000 because we had a variety of refugee-related and immigrant-related programs,” Carr said. “We had a full spectrum from arrival to five years out helping them become citizens with our legal program.”
She took the job in Kenya after visiting Nairobi and a refugee camp in Uganda.
She went, she said, to get a taste of the “other side” of the refugee resettlement world, where camps, sometimes decades old, still don’t have electricity and their host countries rely on foreign aid to supply and support them. Missoula’s first refugees are likely to come from Gihembe, the mountain camp in Rwanda; Nikivale in Uganda or the IRC’s Nyarugusu in western Tanzania. All are havens for those who’ve fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, tiny Burundi, which in the past year has flooded camps in surrounding nations with more than 250,000 refugees seeking refuge from political persecution.
Carr said the host governments are “relatively cooperative” in working with refugees in the three camps, allowing outside support services but in essence holding the refugees captive in camps.
“They’re not as bad as some of the really bad camps that the (Refugee Support Center) works out of” throughout the sub-Sahara, Carr said. “But they’re not by any means wonderful places to live.”
Her duties with the RSC were largely administrative, setting up classrooms and venues to carry out screening of refugees for resettlement.
“Most of my work wasn’t with the refugees, it was the administration of the office, but it was still a phenomenal experience,” she said.
When the opportunity to open an office in Missoula arose earlier this year, Carr was in good position to return to working with the more human side of resettlement.
In Mary Poole's eyes, Carr is the right person for the job.
“She’s fabulous,” said Poole, who helped start the burgeoning Soft Landing Missoula less than a year ago to court a resettlement office back to Missoula. “I feel like we are so lucky that Molly has been brought our way and that she’s willing and absolutely able to take on this project. She’s super smart and super fun, and I really feel like she’s going to fit in perfectly here in Missoula.”
Carr said it wasn’t easy to reach the school in Gihembe that foggy day in 2014. Rain had made some of the steeper roads impassable.
“Then when you get to the classroom itself, it’s really just four walls and a roof,” Carr said. “But inside there were 30 people with a teacher.”
She remembers the students' “intensity” in wanting to learn English, and the big smiles that broke out when two white people entered.
“They were so excited, and so they wanted to practice the English they’d learned: ‘My name is …’ ” she said.
The students were at the end of their course and graduation exercises were held.
“They all got T-shirts that said ‘I’m an ESL graduate’ and we brought food in. It was just a very nice, heartwarming experience to be a part of,” Carr said.
By summer's end perhaps some of those same students will be bringing their families to Missoula, the Promised Land after enduring years of poverty, fear and denigration – and three years of background checks, schooling and medical screenings. They’ll be the lucky few who qualify.
Resettlement, said Carr, is "the last of what we call durable solutions” behind refugees returning to their native country or finding permanent homes in the lands to which they've fled.
“A fraction of 1 percent of the refugees of the world are resettled, and in many regards it benefits the host community just as much as it does the refugees," she said. "It’s a way of engaging in cultural diversity and honoring and respecting the foundations of who we are as Americans who came here as refugees ourselves.”