Written by Kathleen Goodwin
Home. The word itself evokes many memories, smells, images, faces and stories. The population of Missoula is just shy of 74,000 people, each with their own story and memories enough to fill the entire Clark Fork River. Some people were born here, some actively chose to call Missoula home, and some found themselves here by sheer fate. Missoula is proud to be a resettlement community for refugees, thanks in large part to co-director and founder Mary Poole and the hard-working citizens at Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit in town whose goal is help Missoula to be a welcoming, supportive and informed community that can assist refugees to integrate and thrive. This comes in many forms, from direct services to community engagement and so much more. Mary does not have a background in law or political science. She never worked with refugees before founding this organization. Instead, Soft Landing is the love letter that one citizen of the earth writes to another and it reads “we are here, and we want to help.” Mary Poole from Soft Landing sat down with Destination Missoula to discuss the origins of Soft Landing, the various programs offered to refugees in our community, and the many unexpected perks of starting a nonprofit from scratch.
Exploring Missoula's hiking trails. Photo by Andi Hoelzel.
It all began with a photo in September of 2015. Mary Poole was breast feeding her 9-month old son when the news and graphic images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi surfaced. Alan Kurdi was a Syrian refugee who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe with his family. “If you’ve seen it,” Mary says, “it’s a photo that just gets burned into your mind. [As a mother, I was just not] able to fathom it. Raising a kid is hard. Being a parent of a young child is hard. Here I was sitting in a comfortable living room surrounded by friends, surrounded by family in this beautiful mountain town with all of the resources in the world at my fingertips, and parenting was really hard. It felt isolating. And then to imagine having to go through a journey with your family after losing so much. It wasn’t something that I could just stand back and say ‘well, that’s their lot.’ So some friends and I started asking the question ‘How can we help refugees,’ and that led us to finding out about the United Nations High Council For Refugees (UNHCR), which is a global organization that works with refugees. We all donated our $20 that we could afford to give, but lo and behold, it didn’t erase that image or that feeling. It wasn’t enough. And at that point, the question then evolved from ‘How can we help refugees?’ to ‘How we can help refugees right here in Missoula?’”
So they started Googling. One web page would lead to another, and then another. They made phone calls, dozens of them, to organizations in Washington and Idaho and Ohio and Wyoming. They were not professionals or even really knew what they were looking for. But that did not stop them from looking all the same.
“When we started, none of us had a background in activism or organizing or refugee resettlement. We all literally had to Google definitions for some of these things. And so, one of the first things we found out was that Montana and Wyoming were, at the time, actually the only two states in the nation that were not resettling refugees. There were folks going to Alaska and Hawaii, but not Montana. And so that was really shocking to us because we knew that Missoula has a history with resettlement. There have been times in Missoula’s history where we’ve welcomed hundreds of Hmong refugees and many Belarusian and Ukrainian families that came as refugees.”
Mary and her friend group quickly learned that helping refugee families was not a simple matter. It is a long, complicated, drawn-out, very rigid process that is called “resettlement” and it requires the presence of a resettlement agency that holds a contract with the federal government with the State Department. There are only nine resettlement agencies nationwide, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which was the organization that opened the office in 1979 that welcomed Hmong refugees to Missoula. The resettlement agencies are responsible for receiving and placing refugees to designated resettlement communities, operating in over 200 locations nationwide.
“[The IRC has a process of] learning a town and deciding whether or not Missoula would be a good site for resettlement. Everything you could imagine was taken into consideration: jobs, housing, schools, everything.”
Mary explains that at the same time they were reaching out to resettlement agencies, they were reaching out to community leaders to gauge public interest, and the results snowballed quickly to the point of no return.
“What we found was an enormous drive in our city [to assist refugees]. We got a yes from every single community leader we asked. Way before families even got here, when this was just an idea, we already had hundreds of people signed up on volunteer lists wanting to do something. It really has been a huge, huge community effort. It was one of those things where we didn’t really know what we were saying when we started. As soon as [the idea] was out of our mouths and we were learning how hard and complicated it would be, there wasn’t really a choice at that point. It was a freight train. Missoula was going to make this happen.”
The State Department did approve of Missoula as a resettlement community, and the IRC opened up an office in town. In August of 2016, just shy of a year after Mary first saw the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, the first refugee family arrived home in Missoula. Resettlement is a complicated process with many requirements, caveats, and frustrations, but also successes and celebrations. Resettlement agencies are contracted with the State Department to provide what are known as core services for refugee families, and most of these take place within a 30 to 90 day period of them arriving at their new home. These core services include administering social security cards, enrolling students in school, finding employment for adults and securing housing which includes basic necessities like beds and couches and fully-functional kitchens. Working with the IRC and many other community partners, Soft Landing was born out of a need and a desire to help refugees not only enter into the Missoula community, but to thrive in it. Approximately 300 people have been resettled in Missoula, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Syria, and Iraq.
Eritrean Coffee Ceremony during Welcoming Week in 2018. Photo by Rebecca Wallace.
“We get to do a lot of fun stuff. The resettlement agency does phenomenal work, and it is very challenging work, and we get to accent that work with celebrations, soccer games and teaching them how to drive. There are absolutely important parts of both of those, so we really focus on the community building piece of it.”
Soft Landing’s mission has two facets: to provide assistance to refugees in the form of programming and to assist the Missoula community in supporting the families.
“We obviously want to be here to provide services and help refugee clients, but how can we also help Missoula and be partners with everyone in Missoula who is going to be interacting and going to be affected by refugees being here. We also want to give them the support and tools that they need to be the best citizens for those refugees as well. We try to be as client driven as possible and provide the types of services that the refugee families are feeling the need for, but we also want to be a great partner to Missoula and anyone else who is in need of our help.”
So what exactly does Soft Landing do? The answer, in short, is a whole hell of a lot.
“We do a lot of community education outreach [in the form of] larger lectures in partnership with the university as well as smaller discussions with civic organizations. We have a World Refugees Day Soccer Tournament that we do. We host a week-long series of events for welcoming week in September to bring refugee families and Missoula families together so that they can learn about each other or play soccer with each other or sit and eat at the same table as each other. We also have a monthly supper club where we work with local restaurants and chefs from the refugee community partners to provide a meal to the community from their home country. As far as direct services go, we provide English tutors on a one-on-one basis in people’s homes and teach driver education. The resettlement process is heavily weighted on early self-sufficiency and employment, which is great in many ways but there are some challenges. For example, refugees cannot necessarily access a lot of English classes and help because they occur during the day when they are working, so we are able to get people tutors in their homes, which has been really beneficial. We have a transportation program, too. We work on getting bicycles and teaching people how to use the commuter trails and bikes and locks. However, we very quickly learned that people obviously want to drive. It was nothing that we ever set out or intended to do, but now we teach drivers ed courses. We have over 40 licensed drivers, and some very, very generous community members have donated over 20 cars for families in the last couple of years. That has been really cool. We are such a small organization. We are very local, grassroots, very flexible in what we can do and try to maintain a lot of direction from our clients in terms of what services we offer."
Congolese fans and players celebrate moments after the first Team Congo goal at the soccer match. Photo by Sophia Bay.
Soft Landing is also working on a food enterprise which helps refugees start their own food-related businesses, services, or food trucks. In the summer of 2019, they also launched a pilot program to provide a weekly take out meal cooked by refugee chefs- United We Eat @home. Not only does this provide potential financial autonomy to the families, but it also gives the individuals a chance to share a bit of their home culture with Missoula—and for Missoula’s ethnic food scene to expand, too.
“Hands down, the Missoula community has so many people who are excited and supportive of that. The goal is to bring foods from home heritage to this open community that loves culture and food. Food is an interesting thing. A lot of these families have had to flee their homes. They’ve lost their houses and family members and most worldly possessions. They really have very little when they get here, and [many] have been under the auspices of the UN for years and have had to receive so much help and support [from others] on this journey. So when they get here, they are very ready to do the very first thing they can to start giving back and saying thank you. [The refugee families in Missoula] are coming from very generous cultures where food and sharing food at the table is hugely important to that culture, and food is the first thing that they feel that they can give back to the people around them once they get here. We really see it as an opportunity not only to benefit Missoula but to give families that path to generosity which is so important in their culture.”
Worldwide, the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. A refugee family includes the parents and their school-aged children, meaning that if their family is chosen for relocation, certain members may be left out. Parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers of adults, and adult children may not be resettled with their immediate families. This means that families with 18-year-old children can be chosen for resettlement, but they have to make the impossible decision to leave their adult child behind at a refugee camp. This is the case for some families in Missoula. As Mary explains, “there are families here, specifically from the Congo, who have been in camps for 20 or more years. Their kids were born, raised, everything in these camps. Depending on the host country, those camps can be very minimalistic, with only food and shelter. Some host countries do a better job at providing paths to education or the ability to do a little subsistence farm within a plot of land. It just really depends on the host country as to the conditions of the camps.”
Missoula’s ceiling for resettlement is set at 120 refugees a year, which comes out to about 25-30 families. Last year 115 individuals came in family groups and we are on track to receive another 110 individuals this year, which means that Missoula continues to be close to the goal for resettlement, despite a national downward trend. Mary explains that this is a big deal, as some resettlement communities have been struggling to meet their limit. She says that in part, Missoula’s success is due to Missoula itself and how Missoula has been able to provide for refugee families.
Photo by Rebecca Wallace.
The road has certainly been hard, and at times the work is emotionally draining. Mary describes it as constantly drinking from a fire hose. But the work is well worth it. She says that every day is full of laughter and love and gratitude, and that it is these things that keeps her motivated to continue pressing on.
“I have been so impressed and so touched by how important family is for people. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is amazing to see. My partner in this, Molly Cottrell, is also a mother of small children, so we started this as a family organization. Our kids are in here all the time. Our kids know a lot of the refugee kids. A lot of the refugees know our kids by name. They are constantly getting kissed and hugged. One of the most wonderfully touching parts of this journey is that you really see how important family is to people. That adds an additional element to the fact that a lot of people have lost family. And a lot of folks are separated from family, even parents and children are separated right now. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s this beautiful thing that you get to experience—the focus on family every minute of every day—but knowing that such separation and sadness still exists. But even in these dire straights and gravity, there is lightheartedness and a generosity and kindness and compassion and humor—so much humor. For example, I cannot say my daughter’s name in Tigrinya (spoken by Eritreans resettling to Missoula). And I really want to be able to do it. I keep trying to teach myself and people keep trying to teach me. My daughter’s name is Grace and I literally cannot make that happen in Tigrinya in my mouth. I continuously try, and I continuously call my daughter ‘Meat’ to much laughter and smiles.”
In addition to a lighthearted humor and compassion to learn and communicate despite language barriers, Mary also explains that there is an excitement to be in a place like Missoula and in America that provides opportunity for people and their children. “I have had the amazing pleasure of watching parents watch their kids get on a school bus for the first time. [You see it in their face. They think,] ‘My kids are going to get on that bus, they are going to get to go to school all day, and then they are going to come home on that bus, and they are going to be safe that whole time. And they are going to receive an education for free and have the opportunity to go to college and do all of these things in this place.’ That is an indescribable moment that so many of us just absolutely take for granted.”
Photo by Sophia Bay.
Soft Landing and their volunteers work tirelessly every day to make Missoula home for these refugees who have been through hardships and choices that are out of the realm of normalcy for most. Mary explains that the process is full of baby steps, and it can be easy to get flustered or to feel like they should be doing more. “Then we take a step back and say, ‘Oh yeah, people are here now and they are safe. They have homes. Their kids are at school. We can take a breath and thoughtfully work towards our goals.’ Our days are long but our days are rich and full of laughter and generosity. It’s been really, really incredible to see all the relationships that have formed through this—not only through partners and organizations that are doing this work—but with volunteers in the community and just neighbors who are working alongside these families. It’s been such an incredible experience for Missoula.”