With the incredible outpouring of support for our work in Missoula, especially in light of renewed motivation with the situation in Afghanistan, we still find the families who have arrived in Montana as refugees mis-represented and mis-understood by some of the leadership in our state. This statement is in response to a 12/9 Opinion piece that has been run in multiple Montana papers- “Afghan Resettlement Endangers our Communities” by Representative Matt Rosendale.
Soft Landing Missoula is a locally-born, grass roots non-profit that has had the absolute privilege of being a part of welcoming and working with refugees resettled in Missoula, MT for the last five years. As we, once again, watched heartbroken as families fled an extremely difficult and dangerous situation, we felt honored that our community was selected to be one of the hundreds of places across the country that Afghan evacuees will find new homes, new communities, new hope. We consider this work an honor and continue everyday to receive more than we could ever give.
That said, there are some that think this work is too hard, that it has too many challenges and utilizes too many resources. That it can never be safe enough. That we can’t take care of ourselves and newcomers.
Refugee resettlement never has been, nor will it probably ever be, easy. Families are fleeing horrific violence and persecution, coming to a place where they have to learn a new language and many times start completely from scratch. It requires funding, it requires the community’s time and engagement, it requires building the kind of relationships, infrastructure, and programming that Missoula has embarked on these last 5 years. It requires constant adaptation and innovation- both locally and on a national and international level to ensure that each unique situation is evaluated and addressed in a way that is both safe, effective, and the right thing to do. It has been a lot, and it has been hard work that has utilized all sorts of physical and human resources in our city. But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be done. Just because it requires work and resources, doesn’t mean that it also doesn’t far exceed in end benefits- for all. Infact, if you were to ask those Montanans involved, those committing the time, those gifting a good chunk of the funding, those having to shift structures in their workplaces to bring more equity to their services,- they will mention that at some times there are challenges, and at some times it is hard. But, first they will probably smile and tell you a story or two about new, true friendships that have changed their lives and the experiences they have learned from along the way.
Knowing the hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in our own community, refugee and American-born alike, that now share all of these experiences and have built their lives together for the last 5 years, we can only imagine that Rep. Rosendale feels the way he feels for the simple reason that he must not know. He must not know the real challenges, the real dedication, the real triumph, and the real joy of believing in, celebrating, and working hard for a humanity that is so much bigger than your own.
And how could he know these things like we know these things? He has never visited us. He has never met with us and sat with our new neighbors. He has never heard their stories that tell of a journey from a beloved home, to hell, and then to here. Not a journey free from challenges and sorrow now that they are here, but still a journey rich with friendships, community, family, hard work, opportunity, and yes, joy. He hasn’t seen smiles on the faces of the children when they splash in Seeley Lake or view the mountains in Glacier National Park for the first time. He doesn’t know the relief, mixed with fear, mixed with hope, of a dad watching his daughter hop on a school bus for the first time since her life was threatened for attending school and they fled. He hasn’t witnessed a mother cradle her most precious possession that only by luck and grit was she able to bring to this place. He hasn’t watched a young man light up at the chance of finding a job working with computers- a universal language he learned back home and now gets to bring here. He hasn’t met a young woman as a first-generation college student, pouring over homework until late in the night after she gets off of work, but doing it and succeeding.
And maybe he hasn’t had the experiences that make you realize that these are the same smiles of your children, these are the same hesitations and fears of your father, this is the same love of your mother, the same joy of your brother, and the same hard-won success of your sister.
Maybe he doesn’t know that refugees’ lives are built not only on the same emotions, hopes and dreams, but also on the same values. What family that has gone through what a displaced family has gone through would not value the security and safety he speaks of? What man who has gone through the agony of having to leave his brother behind would not constantly be driven by the value of the importance of family. What parent that has to start back at square one in a low-wage job to make sure their kids have access to education doesn’t share the value of hard work and perseverance? What human who has been stripped of their rights, livelihood, loved ones, and safety doesn’t value the independence and opportunity for self-determination of damn near every Montanan I have ever met?
So yes, a lot goes into all of this. It’s a lot of work. But a lot goes into life. Any life. When you get the privilege of knowing the human beings that arrive here in Missoula as refugees, as so many of us have, there is no denying that just as the lives of our loved ones are worthy of all of the hard work, resources, and challenges that go into making a life, so are the lives of refugees. And not because the process is perfect- life is messy- and not because the people are perfect- who among us are?- but because they are people.
So, Rep. Rosendale, we would love to extend an invitation. Will you come see us? Will you sit with us and eat with us? Share a coffee or some tea? Will you visit with Afghans and refugees from other places? Will you hear the stories of your constituents dedicating time and resources to the challenges and the joys of welcoming refugees? Yes, this letter is a little bit of a challenge, but it is not a hostile one, just a heartfelt hope to share with you what we have come to learn over the last five years. Our door is open, any time.
In love and gratitude…
Mary Poole and the Soft Landing Missoula