It looks like Missoula’s first round of refugees will be from sub-Saharan Africa, not Syria.
“We haven’t finalized when they’ll be coming, so I can’t give you specifics, but it will most likely be Congolese to start, Congolese from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Molly Short Carr said Wednesday.
Carr, Missoula’s new International Rescue Committee director, arrived in Missoula two weeks ago to start preparations for a resettlement office that was approved earlier this year by the U.S. State Department. A native of Buffalo, New York, she spent most of the past two years as an administrator based in Nairobi, Kenya, working on “the other side” of the international continuum of refugee resettlement efforts.
Carr said she has been in the three camps the Congolese refugees to Missoula are most likely to come from – Gihembe in Rwanda, Nakivale in Uganda and Nyaragusu Refugee Camp on the coast of Tanzania. She was in Nyaragusa just a month ago.
“This year there’s been a push to bring certain populations out of Africa, so our resources on the continent were shifted to certain locations,” said Carr. “That’s why I was with those populations.”
Refugee numbers from the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo swelled in the mid- to late 1990s as people tried to escape civil war. An estimated 150,000 people reportedly crossed Lake Tanganyika to escape ethnic and political violence.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the Obama administration will meet its highly controversial target of settling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. by Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. The national IRC office played it close to the vest, but there were indications in recent months that some of those Syrian refugees would be headed for Missoula.
That doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not initially, said Carr, who expects the first Congolese to arrive in August or September.
Missoula County commissioners touched off a firestorm when they sent a letter to the U.S. State Department last winter saying they’d welcome the resettlement of 100 refugees a year to deal with the worldwide crisis, which has reached proportions not seen since the aftermath of World War II.
One hundred is roughly the number Carr expects to work with, though Bob Johnson, a senior adviser for the IRC office in Seattle, said the number isn’t set in stone.
“It’s pretty hard to predict because we don’t know family size,” he said. “It could be 100, it could be 125 total people. One hundred within the first 12 months was kind of how we calculated, given that things would start off very slow.”
“We’re not going to put more refugees here than the capacity,” Carr said. “We have to look at what’s available, how many refugees would we be able to support and provide assistance to, and how many would the community be able to support and provide assistance to.”
Missoula has a number of advantages, she noted, including the assistance of Soft Landing Missoula, which has built an impressive network of support and volunteers. It’s a bike-friendly community which now offers a fare-free Mountain Line bus system.
The first arrivals are now in refugee camps in East Africa and should be aware of their destination after up to three years of intensive screening and background checks. The vetting process for Syrian refugees has come under scrutiny but Carr, who has seen the system in action in Africa, insisted it is extremely thorough.
"We’re going to make sure that everyone who comes through is exactly who they say they are, doing what they said they were going to do," she said. "We’re going to be very risk adverse in this process. The highest priority on the national side is security and the integrity of the program."
As Carr understands it, the IRC’s initial intent is to resettle families, though coming from a war-torn nation they aren't likely to be intact.
“We may have single moms or dads, we may have older children, younger children. Many of the younger children who come will have lived their entire lives in a refugee camp,” she said.
Office space for the IRC has been secured in the Solstice Building on West Broadway, and interviews are ongoing this week to fill the positions of caseworker and a half-time finance manager. The focus is on hiring locally from what Johnson characterized as a deep pool of applicants.
“We feel that the local knowledge of the community is going to be invaluable as we bring in the refugees,” Carr said.
Those who fled the Congo may speak a variety of languages, including Swahili, Lingala, or Kikongo.
“Maybe a little English. There are some English training programs in the camps, but it’s very minimal," Carr said. "Some of them will have French, because the Congo is a French-speaking country. That will be helpful for learning English, because grammatically they’re very similar.”
Missoula has no Congolese community to speak of, but it does offer a strong international component at the University of Montana and an uncommonly large return population of Peace Corps volunteers.
“If they were anywhere in East Africa, they’ll probably speak Swahili and be able to help us communicate and work with the refugees,” Carr said of the latter.
The university will do its part, assistant professor Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the African-American Studies program, said in an email Wednesday
His department "will be very interested in connecting with the families, and finding ways to support them,' Shearer said, "especially in terms of providing any orientation that we could to racial realities in the U.S."