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Wakati Makonga was 9 years old when he arrived to Missoula with his parents and two younger siblings from Tanzania. Wakati and his family were one of the first families resettled to Missoula by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in 2016. Upon arrival, Wakati spoke very little English.

On March 8, 2019, just two years later, Wakati sat across the table from Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, and expressed how fortunate he is to have resettled in Missoula. He shared his gratitude for the opportunity to get an education in Montana and thanked the Missoula community for the warm welcome in receiving him — all in fluent English! This meeting was part of IRC Missoula’s legislative advocacy day, where IRC staff and refugee clients met with legislators to share information about our refugee resettlement work and the refugee experience.

In addition to our meeting with the Governor’s Office, we hosted a legislative briefing and provided information about our work and why refugee resettlement is important for Montana. Speakers included Wakati, his father Joel, and Bob-Be Sparks, executive housekeeper at the Holiday Inn Missoula Downtown. Sparks spoke about the positive impact of hiring refugees and how they fill housekeeping positions which are often hard to keep staffed. Since 2016, the Holiday Inn has hired over 20 refugees. Says Sparks, “I cannot tell you how grateful I am to the IRC for the staff that I have.” For the first time in 15 years, the Holiday Inn will be able to fully staff their housekeeping department. “It’s absolutely, 100 percent, because of the path we took two years ago to start hiring refugees,” says Sparks.

As the only resettlement agency in Montana, the IRC in Missoula provides services for refugees that enable them to thrive in the U.S. We build support systems, encourage self-sufficiency and facilitate refugees’ integration into the Missoula community. Our team provides case management and employment services for all refugees arriving to Missoula, including helping them obtain housing and employment, enrolling children in school and assisting them on their path to citizenship.

IRC Missoula helps the world’s most vulnerable rebuild their lives. We are there from the time their plane touches down at the airport and continue to work with refugees for up to five years. It is an honor to serve those that have been through so much, and we value the time and attention of our legislators who participated in this integration process.

For many clients, this was the first time they ever had the chance to meet with state leaders; it was the first time they were recognized by a legislature for their contributions; it was the first time that they were able to participate in American democracy in action. During our visit, we were able to highlight the most important factor in our work: the support of the Montana community. Almost 400 residents from across Montana signed a petition declaring their support for resettlement here in the Treasure State. This is a symbol of the welcome that Wakati, his family, and their fellow refugees received.

As Governor Bullock stated, “Meeting these men and women will stick with me for a long time. They came from all over the world — Iraq, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to take refuge here in Montana. These folks and the many more that follow them will always have a seat at our table.”

To learn more about the work of IRC Missoula, please visit our Facebook page at Facebook.com/IRC Missoula.

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Jen Barile is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Missoula.

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