Rural West Towns Welcome International Refugees

Salam Bunyan right, and his wife, Aseel, resettled in Boise, Idaho, from Syria with the help of the International Rescue Committee. The couple set up a restaurant in Boise. (Photo courtesy of the International Rescue Committee)

(CN) – Montana is having one of its coldest winters in decades, but for 12 refugee families from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Treasure State couldn’t be warmer.

Over 50 refugees have been adapting to their new homes in Missoula, Montana, over the past four months, the first American refugees to be settled in Montana under the International Rescue Committee.

For these refugees from around the world, arriving in Montana has meant a journey across continents for the last several years. But they arrived in Montana thanks to the help of Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit startup that had the idea of wanting to help resettlement of refugees, but didn’t know how.

They turned to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee organization that Albert Einstein founded to help people fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Mary Poole, executive director of Soft Landing Missoula, said a group of concerned citizens in Missoula got together in late 2015 to discuss “what it would look like to bring refugees here, not knowing what that really would look like.”

Montana is one of two states in America, including Wyoming, that did not have a plan to resettle refugees in the last wave of immigration from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq. “Our state, let alone our nation, didn’t know what resettlement was,” Poole said.

So this small group of concerned citizens in Missoula turned to the International Refugee Committee. “They agreed to take on this adventure with us,” Poole said.

The International Rescue Committee was convinced they could help, and actually set up an office in Missoula, home to the University of Montana. The town’s liberal-arts culture lives alongside mining, ranching and conservative interests. Montana is a Republican-leaning state and helped elect President Donald Trump, but has strong Democratic pockets and has a Democratic governor who is now in his second term.

Finding Homes in the Rural West

For Twin Falls, Idaho, refugee resettlement is not new. The town has welcomed over 4,000 refugees since the 1980s.

About 300 refugees arrive in the Twin Falls community each year, and resettling refugees has broadened the town’s cultural knowledge, Twin Falls mayor Shawn Barigar said.

“I feel refugee resettlement has helped Twin Falls and its residents share a welcoming environment and humanitarian support to those in need for many decades,” Barigar said. “Refugees have been able to share their cultural experiences with us, have found friendships and opportunity to improve their own lives and those of their families, and have become important and successful members of our community.”

Those experiences are shared in the local schools, according to Twin Falls superintendent of schools Wiley Dobbs.

When Dobbs was a teacher back in the 1980s, the Twin Falls schools accepted many refugees from Southeast Asia. Dobbs found them to be a welcome cultural asset to the town’s schools. In fact, he would practice pronouncing the names of his students at the beginning of the school year so he could surprise them and be able to say their name correctly.

“They would teach me how to say things like ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ in their native language,” Dobbs added. “I can remember many of my students back then very vividly. It was a privilege and an honor to teach them. The Twin Falls community has been very welcoming as a whole, and the experience has been mutually beneficial to our community and to the refugees through the years.”

The College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls has been instrumental in helping refugees settle in the United States. From 1982 through 2016, the college has helped relocate refugees from Vietnam, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Laos, the former Soviet Union, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Iran, Iraq, Burma, Eritrea, Bhutan, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Sudan.

Since the program began in 1982, it has resettled more than 2,500 refugees, providing local businesses with a steady source of entry-level workers, according to the college. The program also helped to pump more than $3 million in federal money and benefits back into the area, the college says, with the money used to purchase goods and services from local merchants.

That welcoming sentiment doesn’t seem to be the prevailing attitude in Hamilton, Montana, where residents in Ravalli County have spoken out strongly against resettlement of refugees in their community.

Ravalli County commissioners decided to gauge public opinion on refugee resettlement and they set up a public meeting last year. Commissioner Jay Hawk said because of overwhelming attendance the public meeting had to be moved from a conference room to the town’s basketball gymnasium, where 800 to 1,000 people spoke in vehement opposition to the county being a harbor for refugees, Hawk said. The county does not have a resettlement agency that could accept new refugees.

“Testimony was about 10 to 1 in opposition to refugee resettlement in our county,” Hawk said.  “We then wrote a letter to all federal and state agencies involved in resettlement programs and to our legislative delegation making it clear to them that Ravalli County was not in favor of refugee resettlement without some way to vet the refugees.

“I don’t know how people feel now, but I suspect feelings haven’t changed all that much,” since the town hall meeting about a year ago, he said.

Just 60 miles away, though, Missoula has welcomed the international refugees with open arms and loving hearts.

At just over 150 refugees – 25 families – allowed to settle in Missoula in 2017, “that’s just a drop in the bucket,” Soft Landing Missoula director Mary Poole said. “It’s not a solution but it offers a few families a chance to live life again.”

How They Get Here

The International Refugee Committee is one of nine organizations that the U.S. State Department uses to resettle refugees. The nine organizations, six of which are faith-based, do most of the heavy lifting of resettling refugees into the United States, from background checks to housing, employment and schooling.

Missoula’s first refugees started to arrive this past August. But they weren’t the first refugees to have resettled in Missoula: in the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of Hmong refugees resettled there, followed by refugees from the Ukraine in the 1990s.

With the refugees safely in homes and making roots in the town, Soft Landing Missoula is focused on supporting the newcomers, from community engagement with the refugees, to finding the right-sized boots for the families in this cold Montana winter.

“It’s been a really interesting and wild journey,” Poole said.

Despite some pushback from people who are anti-immigration, the resettlement process has gone extremely well, Poole said. Maybe that’s a reflection of the way of life in the West, where neighbors often count on each other, Pooled noted.

She mentioned one “crusty old rancher” who told her he was dead set against immigration, but said, “‘I’ll be the first one to shake their hands.’”

The barriers to immigration to the United States are high, Poole said.

The process can take at least two years, and less than one percent of refugees who register with the United Nations will end up being recommended for resettlement, Poole said.

The first priority for refugees is for them to get back home. The second option is to work with nations to get refugees legal status so they can stay where they landed after fleeing their homelands. The third option is resettlement in another country, “which is not an easy thing,” Poole said.

One of the qualifying factors for resettlement is whether the refugee would face death or retribution if they were to return home, according to Poole.

Where the Refugees Come From

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the U.N.’s refugee agency, there are currently about 65.3 million people who have been forced from their homes around the world – the largest displacement ever measured by the organization. Of that figure, there are around 21.3 million people registered as refugees, people who are displaced outside the borders of their countries. The U.N. says over half of all refugees are under the age of 18.

More than half of current refugees come from just three nations: Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, and the majority of these refugees do not live in the West nor are they on the verge of traveling there, according to the U.N.

The United Nations says that around 1.19 million people will need to be resettled in 2017, due to the dire conditions in which they’re living. The United States, which accepts more resettled refugees than any other country, will take only a fraction of that number. Since the war in Syria started in 2011, 5.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland and the United States has taken in just under 20,000 refugees, the U.N. says.

“Resettlement means taking refugees from places like Lebanon, where they are already refugees, selecting the most vulnerable and taking them to other places,” Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, said in a statement. “If we weaken that program, as has been done in the United States, this is a very dangerous weakening of the international solidarity for refugees.”

The Vetting Process

Poole, of Soft Landing Missoula, said much of the talk over immigration is on the screening process that refugees must undergo. Poole said the process is rigorous, taking about two years and involving five federal agencies.

There are medical screenings, tests and interviews. “It’s a really long, hard process,” Poole said.

Poole is a fourth-generation Montana who sees resettling qualified refugees as a necessary humanitarian effort. The resettlement process has forged her ties to the community and has opened discussions among people of varied backgrounds and opinions.

Proponents of refugee resettlement in Missoula have tried to be compassionate and kind in their outreach and not just shut down conversations with opponents, label them as racists and bigots and make them feel they shouldn’t be validated in their views, Poole said.

“That’s a really important part of what we do – not just pulling supporters into the conversation,” she said. “I have some dear, dear friends who don’t agree with refugee resettlement, but knowing that we all come with a different story has been really positive for both sides in that relationship.”

What is a Refugee?

A legal refugee is someone who is fleeing their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.

A person applying for refugee status in the United States must first have been designated a refugee by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After that is done, the individual can apply for refugee entrance into a number of countries willing to accept refugees.

People under consideration for refugee status in the United States must first go through a series of interviews with an immigration officer. As part of that process, an individual must complete a detailed application, a family history and biographical information, and go through a background and security check.

Once their application is complete and approved, the applicant’s name and case is presented by the U.S. State Department to one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies, which gather weekly in Washington for agency distributions.

If a refugee candidate makes it this far in the process, a local community office provides appropriate interpreting and resettling services for the arriving refugee. The local office can then decide to accept or reject the case for resettlement through their office. The actual arrival of the refugee may not occur for several months or even years, depending on circumstance out of the control of the local agencies, according to the College of Southern Idaho.

Refugees accepted for entry into the United States must sign agreements to accept any appropriate employment when offered and must sign a promissory note to pay back the costs of their flight to the United States. Refugees with disabilities and individuals under 18 or 65 and older are exempt from the employment requirements.

Albert Einstein helped form the International Rescue Committee to help refugees resettle in America from the ravages of World War II. (Photo: International Rescue Committee)

A Long Legacy of Resettlement

The resettlement of refugees through the International Rescue Committee continues the legacy of Albert Einstein, who in 1933 helped start the American branch of the European-based International Relief Association. His goal was to assist Germans suffering under Hitler and his allies in Italy and Spain.

“The effort here is enormous, and the support is overwhelming at times,” Poole said. “It’s been eye-opening and phenomenal and amazing, the support and welcome and love these families have received. My two-year-old, one day, will be sitting in a classroom with other people of other nationalities and seeing the world through others’ eyes. There will be huge challenges but let’s try and get through this together.”

Poole said the resettlement effort reflects a good-neighbor aspect of living in the West.

“Maybe it’s a Western thing,” she said. “Independence is strong, but there is also a strong pull to help your neighbors, because in times of need they are the only ones you can rely on.”