Montana Moms Rescuing Refugees
It started with a photo of a young boy that shook the globe.
It was just over five years ago that the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose limp body Turkish authorities found washed up on the beach, went viral across computer screens and living rooms around the world.
The Syrian refugee crisis had long before hit European shores, but the widely known death of such a young child had a dramatic impact that helped the crisis get much-needed attention. Like many other desperate Syrians who died while fleeing their homeland, Aylan drowned after a boat he rode with his mother and other refugees capsized on its way to the Greek island of Kos.
More than 6,000 miles away in Missoula, Montana, a group of moms who were part of a book club began to discuss the plight of Aylan and those like him.
"That photo led us to explore what being a refugee really means and how we could help them locally."
At the time, Montana was one of only two states in the nation — the other being Wyoming — that had no formal government program to resettle refugees.
Mary Poole, a member of that club who had just given birth nine months before to a baby boy, decided with a few friends that it was time to change that.
“I had become a new mom, responsible for this young life, and it gave me this whole new lens of thinking about what I wanted to do in the world, and what kind of world I want my family to grow up in,” said Poole, 39. “That photo led us to explore what being a refugee really means and how we could help them locally.”
Since 2016, the nonprofit Poole co-founded has helped recruit a refugee-resettlement office for the International Rescue Committee to Missoula, and has provided free services to the hundreds of refugees who have since arrived in this college town of 75,000.
The organization is called Soft Landing Missoula. Refugees receive limited federal grants and social services support when they arrive in America. Soft Landing picks up where government assistance is unable.
The refugees are largely Congolese families who have escaped war, though they also include those from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Eritrea. Most have spent years in refugee camps or living under asylum outside their native countries before applying — via the United Nations — to settle permanently elsewhere. And most have no idea they will end up in the United States, let alone Montana, a state where 89% of people are white.
“We began as a grassroots group of moms with our own young kids seeing the horrible images coming out of the Middle East, opening our eyes to what is happening with refugees all around the world,” said Poole. “This was not our background or professions. But we felt we needed to teach ourselves and do something.”
They ended up doing quite a lot.
Navigating Hurdles — Including Cold Weather
Soft Landing, which is run by an all-female staff, provides driver’s-test lessons, English classes, résumé workshops, job-search connections, educational support for refugee children, and field trips for kids — all run via donations, grants, and volunteers. It operates from a small office near downtown Missoula, and recently launched a new program, United We Eat, where refugees who are amateur chefs make money by catering Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East African meals for local businesses and events.
The group also runs workshops around Montana about the refugee-resettlement process, which has brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the U.S. since Congress formally established the nation’s resettlement effort in 1980. The White House sets the cap on the number of refugees allowed in the country each fiscal year. This year the ceiling is 18,000, though just under 8,000 have arrived so far.
Refugees who come to the U.S. represent just a tiny sliver of those around the world. According to the United Nations, there are 30 million refugees globally, more than half of whom are under 18. Twenty-two refugees, all Congolese, have resettled in Missoula so far this year.
“The refugees who arrive here in Missoula usually end up working in the service industry, such as hotels, restaurants, and at Walmart. Many take two jobs to support their families,” said Molly Cottrel, 42, Soft Landing’s deputy director. “Nobody wants to be a refugee, but they end up forced to become one, either due to war or other environmental factors or persecution they are facing.”
"We began as a grassroots group of moms with our own young kids seeing the horrible images coming out of the Middle East, opening our eyes to what is happening with refugees all around the world."
Aside from the challenges that all refugees face of learning a new language and finding ways to make money, climate is a hurdle for many of those who settle in Montana.
In Missoula, average temperatures in January barely rise above freezing. Most of the newcomers that Soft Landing assists have origins in hot and humid or desert-like regions.
“There are pros and cons to being resettled anywhere,” said Cottrel. “Our con is the weather. But what we can offer is a smaller community with a lot of resources, a very welcoming population of people already living here, and a place where we can really help people feel at home.”
This year, Poole, Cottrel, and the Soft Landing staff reached a major milestone since those first days when reaching out to refugees was just a dream: celebrating the first high school graduations for kids who they helped move into the city. Two of the students were Congolese and one was Eritrean. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremonies had strictly limited attendance. But the excitement at the Soft Landing office couldn’t be contained.
“It is absolutely a joy, and so impressive, to see how our new community members learn, grow, and succeed,” said Poole. “They’re contributing so much to our Missoula community and making it so much better. We could not be prouder."