Used to be, World Refugee Day was just another day in Missoula.
Not so now.
Both the International Rescue Committee Missoula and Soft Landing Missoula have big things planned for this weekend leading up to the actual day of Wednesday, June 20 — the annual date set in 2000 by the United National General Assembly.
Some 250 soccer players and several hundred others are expected Saturday at Fort Missoula Regional Park for Soft Landing’s second World Refugee Day soccer tournament and community celebration.
The IRC’s national office has partnered with the outdoor gear company Cotopaxi to include a refugee-specific challenge in the quirky, 24-hour Questivals staged at venues across the country. Missoula’s version comes to town for the second time Friday and Saturday. Jen Barile, resettlement director for Missoula IRC, said her staff will field a four-member team that includes a refugee who works as a part-time staffer.
On Wednesday, the local IRC will host a day of action that culminates in a Facebook Live stream, inviting those who want to stand with refugees to take collective action by encouraging lawmakers to support refugee resettlement.
Since August 2016 the IRC has sponsored the arrival and resettlement of 166 refugees in Missoula, the vast majority of whom remain here. While the numbers have slowed down, Barile said families continue to arrive or are slated to this summer.
Most are families who fled from strife and persecution in two very different African nations: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea, a nation at war with neighboring Ethiopia in northeastern Africa. Syrian, Iraqi and Ethiopian families have also moved to Missoula.
“The refugees that IRC Missoula is settling here are integrating extremely well,” said Barile, who heads a staff of six full-timers, three part-timers and three on-call interpreters. “Part of that is due to the wonderful community we have here, part of it is our amazing family mentor volunteers who help take families to farmers' market, grocery shopping, to dance classes, and enroll the children in sports.”
The local schools and the Lifelong Learning Center for adults are key to the efforts, Barile said.
Roughly 90 percent of the employable refugees have jobs.
“We don’t have a very difficult time at all finding employment,” she said. “We know from our partners here in Missoula that refugees are filling gaps in employment where maybe employers are struggling to hold on to workers.”
Soft Landing is a nonprofit made up of mostly volunteers who work to support refugees and to educate the community about them.
That’s what Saturday’s soccer event and community day at Fort Missoula is all about, said executive director Mary Poole.
The inaugural event in 2017 “went without a hitch,” said Poole, and so the formula for that success hasn’t been tampered with.
Games are set to start at 10 a.m. at Missoula Parks and Recreation’s new fields. Players of all ages, talent levels and genders sign up individually and are placed on teams for 7-on-7 competition. The round-robin format guarantees each team two games. Each team includes at least one refugee player.
“It worked out really well last year,” Poole said. “At first people said, ‘Why can’t I bring my own team?’ But by the end of the day everybody got it. It was really cool to see the teams come together.”
The event is a Soft Landing Missoula fundraiser. Registration for the soccer tournament is $45, with a $5 discount for Soft Landing volunteers.
Poole expects numbers of players similar to last year's 250 to register, either in advance through Soft Landing Missoula and Missoula Parks and Recreation websites or at the fields at 9 a.m. The World Refugee Cup final is at 4 p.m. A free dinner and celebration starts at 5 p.m.
In addition to last year’s traditional American barbecue fare, the dinner features sampling of dishes from local refugee families. Poole said Iraqi chefs will have deep-fried falafel and pastries known as baklava on hand; Eritreans will serve up their national dish, injara, a sourdough-risen flatbread.
Back this year is the Dejebe Barba dance group. New to the evening agenda will be a futbong (no-hands tennis) tournament and a visit from Animal Wonders of Missoula.
“We set out to have a little fun and celebrate last year,” Poole said in promotional release. “We never could have imagined how an event like this could build so much community and so many individual connections for all involved. It was magical and we are very excited to continue that magic this year.”
The two-day Questival in which IRC Missoula is participating starts in Caras Park on Friday evening but could lead teams to anywhere in Missoula or outside. Each team downloads an app that issues challenges and goes live at 7 p.m. Friday. The event is divided into three sprints of four to seven hours apiece, with a mandatory sleep block from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday when the app goes dark. It’s all over at 6 p.m. that night.
“They don’t release the challenges until about 24 hours before it starts, but what I’m told is there are two that are IRC-related,” Barile said. “One is to donate to the IRC, and that money will get routed to the Missoula office, so people can donate as a challenge to help families here in Missoula.
“The other challenge is to record a message of hope for a refugee that will be shared with families here in Missoula.”
Such support, as well as that on Wednesday’s day of action, come at a critical time, Barile said.
“The Trump administration’s ceiling to admit 45,000 refugees in federal fiscal year 2018 (is) the lowest refugee admissions level in U.S. history,” she said. “But at the current pace, the U.S. will only admit less than half of that.”
As the end of the third quarter approaches on June 30, Missoula has welcomed just 43 refugees since the start of the fiscal year last Oct. 1. That’s roughly half the number during the same period last fiscal year. The IRC estimates the United States will provide haven to only 20,000 refugees this time.
Barile said the IRC recognizes “the incredible potential of refugees and their impact in communities that choose to have open hearts and minds.”
“Let’s make sure we do what’s right; let’s make sure we stand with refugees," she urged. "This World Refugee Day and every other day, let’s choose to be on the right side of history.”
That means speaking up on behalf of refugees and encouraging elected officials to support refugee-friendly policies.
“It’s welcoming a new family into your community with open arms,” Barile said. “(And) it’s educating others on who refugees are and that their hopes and dreams are no different than ours.”