Like spring weather…
The weather has been all over the board this spring (nothing new), and so have we (again, nothing new…)! With the small bit of chaos that the change in seasons always seems to bring, I am a bit late this month in getting a newsletter out to you all- my apologies (as if anyone even noticed! HA!). I say that just to note that the additional couple weeks added to the list of things I wanted to bring to your attention and so you are now ending up with a long, a bit scattered, and certainly not “cohesive” blob of information in your inbox this morning from someone not organized enough or skilled enough to make it all present very “pretty”. Thanks for your patience 😉
First, lets start off with the great news- GRADUATION! We were so excited to celebrate 3 more high school graduates that have participated in Soft Landing Missoula’s youth programming this past year. These incredible young adults just blew us away with their hard work- all three navigating school during COVID while working at the same time. Thank you MCPS and the families of these amazing students. We are so honored to be part of a team with you that supported these student’s success! On that note, last year SLM helped send the graduates into their futures with a little cash gift, as is customary for friends and family to do, and we extended an invitation to anyone from the community who wanted to add to that cash gift. We did the same thing this year and would like to make the same invitation to you ;). If you would like, you are welcome to drop some “congratulations cash” off at our office and we will see that it gets to these 3 awesome folks headed out into the big wide world. We are waiting on the professional portraits from this past week and you can look forward to us sharing these and a little more about each graduate in the next newsletter as well 😉
Congratulations, JP, Sifa, and Ange! You are amazing!
Next, I want to acknowledge some more incredibly wonderful and welcome news, and let you know about the BIGGEST CHALLENGE we, and many others, are facing right now. The wonderful news is that Missoula is once again welcoming refugee families through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) after quite a long break due to politics and COVID. We have been over the moon to meet these families and offer them a warm welcome. But there has been a challenge, which I am sure all of you can guess…Housing. When families first get here, the IRC helps them secure market rate housing with a small, one-time “stipend” designed to last 30-90 days as new families work toward self sufficiency in that time period. While finding initial housing for refugee families has always been a juggling act that the IRC has navigated with success over the last 4+ years, there are a huge issues right now for so many Missoulians when it comes to securing and retaining housing, and refugee families are facing the same. This includes not only an extreme lack of rental options for incoming families, but also rising rental rates for established families (sometimes by HUNDREDS of dollars a month), enormous expenses related to temporary housing in hotels and application fees, and the requirement of double, and even triple deposits to secure a spot. SLM has begun to insert ourselves in larger community conversations around long term solutions for these dire issues (again, refugees are not even the most vulnerable in our community to the risk of homelessness during this crisis) in hopes that we can lend our voice so that all can be better served, and so that refugee families don’t have to move away from Missoula before they can even get established here. That said, the success of Missoula as a “soft landing” for refugee families has always been in large part due to those of you reading this newsletter right now. PLEASE reach out if you have any ideas, connections, or opportunities you would like to share with us. There are currently two new large families in temporary housing situations (again, eating up in weeks the very limited assistance that is supposed to last at least a few months) as well as multiple families that have been here for a couple years and are now facing enormous changes in rental situations as they try to figure out how they can stay in Missoula through this crisis.
Let’s talk Special Immigrant Visas- SIVs. For the first part of this conversation, I will be using language and resources provided by the incredible organization- Vets for American Ideals– who is working tirelessly on this issue, as well as Hello Neighbor Network– of which we are co-founding members. If you already know the details, stick with me because after this initial information, I will also offer up the opinion and first hand experience of an Afghan friend.
Special Immigrant Visas have been available to Iraqi and Afghan citizens who supported the U.S. and NATO and subsequently face risks to their lives. As the U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in our world today, Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. or NATO as interpreters and supporters are in danger and have been threatened by the Taliban. The Biden administration is examining long delays in the program and says it will be adding anti-fraud measures. But for the time being, 17,000 SIV applicants are currently stuck in processing and an estimated 70,000 Afghan lives are in danger for their affiliation with the U.S. The average length of wait for an SIV visa is currently 3.5 years due to an underfunded and under-capacitated program.
On May 25, officials announced that American troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan by early- to mid-July, well ahead of President Biden’s September 11 deadline. With the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan proceeding swiftly, the fate of more than 17,000 Afghans who served American forces along with their family members is at risk. As the Department of Defense plans its evacuation of our allies, VFAI offers up these action steps to call on President Biden to evacuate our allies to safety in United States territory.
Knowing I wanted to bring this issue to your attention due to the fact that we currently work with a handful of Iraqi SIV’s here in Missoula as well as Afghan asylees, I put in a call to a friend from Afghanistan, who has requested to remain anonymous, in order to gain a deeper perspective. I am also going to use the pronouns they/them to further protect identity and am so grateful for their willingness to share this insight with us. They wanted us to know that this is their opinion and the opinion/experience of friends and family still in Afghanistan, but that theirs is, understandably, not the only voice.
My friend agrees with the information presented above and that the SIV applicants and their families are among the most vulnerable group that will most certainly be targeted by the Taliban with the withdraw of US troops, but they also wanted to bring attention to the fact that there are many other groups of people that are at risk of being targeted, raising the number in people in concern to what they are hearing reported as closer to 500,000 individuals. This includes not only anyone who holds or is in the process of securing other forms of visas with the US, such as student, work, or lottery-type visas, but really anyone who has had any affiliation with the US or other foreign governments. After SIV’s, most concerning to them is those working for NGO’s in Afghanistan. This is a first hand concern, as they are here in the US as an asylee due to the targeting of the NGO they worked for back home by the Taliban and the risk to their life. They feel like the country is increasingly unstable, with 5-7 factions vying for power and the withdraw of US troops will increase the instability and tension resulting from these competing groups. They are unsure of the strength of the current (American-backed) president, Ashraf Ghani, to hold power through this turmoil- with or without a peace deal, although they hope a peace deal is brokered before the withdraw of troops. It is also their opinion that despite the eventual troop withdraw, the US should maintain a presence at a couple bases until we see how any peace deal may play out.
While we can act (same link as above) to make our voices heard in support of the safe and speedy processing of Afghan SIV’s and their families, we also hold all of those in Afghanistan who are effected by US influence and eventual troop withdraw in our hearts and thoughts.
**We have also recently touched on the horrific violence in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region that is effecting many of the Eritrean families in Missoula, as well as the destructive volcanic eruption in Congo that continues to displace family and loved ones of some of the Congolese families. Again, we extend our love, our thoughts, and the actions we can take, how ever small, to these families as well.
With the tragedy and uncertainly that continues to face so many, it is even more important to find reason to come together and celebrate the resilience and contributions of refugees around the globe every chance we get. One of these reasons is coming up this weekend- Sunday June 20th is World Refugee Day. Many of you know that our World Refugee Day Cup Soccer Tournament has been one of our largest community building events in the past- and we hope will be again in the future. For this year though, due to continued COVID concerns at the time of planning (even though is seems like in the last 2 weeks many COVID restrictions have lifted, it takes a bit longer to plan these things!), we are keeping the event smaller and centered on the families who arrived in Missoula as refugees. There will, of course, be plenty of delicious food and soccer, and hopefully even a little music and dancing. Although our event isn’t open to the public this year, we do hope you will take a moment on Sunday (and every day!) to recognize and thank those in our lives who came to the US as refugees (and if you don’t know a refugee you can find out more about summer volunteer opportunities with Soft Landing below!), mark it on your calendar for next year, and continue to be on the lookout for pubic events through SLM as is safe. We are currently working on plans for Welcoming Week in September so fingers crossed.
Thank you for sticking with me through this long, and long-overdue, newsletter. There are a few more exciting announcements below, including our next virtual cooking class, an introduction to our summertime youth crew (and volunteer opportunities!), and a HUGE WELCOME to Rozan from Syria, who is joining our Untied We Eat team as a Soft Landing Missoula staff member! Woohoo!
I hope you are enjoying the spring weather as much as I am and embracing the bit of chaos that goes along with the change in seasons 😉
In love and gratitude,
June Virtual Cooking Class
Join us Wednesday, June 30th, 5pm-6:30pm for another virtual cooking class! Chef Asta So will teach us how to cook delicious Hong Kong style fried rice with a side of bok choy. This class will take place live on Zoom and participants will be able to interact with the Chef as she teaches us about Hong Kong food and culture. At only $15 ($20 with a tip included for the chef!) these classes are a super affordable way to experience the world- or even to gift a friend! The last day to register is Monday June 28th so don’t delay!
Summa’ Time Team
We are very excited to welcome Hellie and welcome back Lorraine as AmeriCorps members on our youth program team! Lorraine and Hellie will be organizing a book club again for students this summer and coordinating activities with the kids throughout the summer from whitewater rafting to ice cream in the park!
If this sounds awesome to you- we are also looking for some additional summer volunteers for our youth program. Click below to find out how to join the fun!
Exciting News- Welcome Rozan!
We’re so excited to introduce you to the newest member of the United We Eat/Soft Landing Team: Rozan Shbib! Rozan hails from Damascus, Syria, by way of Egypt. She and her mother, Chef Muna, are wonderful cooks, and we’re so thrilled to have hired Rozan to join our team as the Kitchen Assistant and you can learn a bit more about her and our other United We Eat staff at unitedweeatmt.org. She will be supporting our Kitchen Manager, Katie, in all aspects of the UWE@home program, and helping us as we dream a little bigger! While Rozan prefers us not to use her picture, she is incredibly warm and excited to meet you all- so don’t hesitate to say hello and give a big welcome if you are picking up food this week (and weeks to come!).