Community Garden Plots Create a Bridge to Home 

She heads to her garden most days during the summer. Wearing a flowy dress that falls to the ground and sandals, she kicks her shoes off, opting instead for the feeling of dirt on her bare feet. Around her are rows of growing corn, potatoes, onions, and hearty greens, and in the distance lie majestic vistas of the surrounding foothills. 

This scene was commonplace this past summer at community garden plots around Missoula. Thanks to the generosity of Garden City Harvest and Tower Gardens Community Garden at FARM, 11 refugees – mostly Congolese and Afghan community members plus one family from Myanmar – were able to farm their own land, planting ingredients common in their home country’s cooking and giving them a taste of home. 

Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we believe food is one of the most powerful tools for connection, and that’s especially true for refugees coming from countries where subsistence farming wasn’t a hobby but rather a way of life. We have found that facilitating the opportunity for these families to grow their own food and prepare culturally appropriate meals gives many of them a sense of purpose, and it creates such joy. 

For many Congolese farmers, this was not their first growing season. As the years have gone by, we’ve seen them get creative with the types of ingredients they’ll use and learn how to adjust their farming practices to match Missoula’s unique growing season – May to October, relatively short by comparison – and climate. 

They loved growing corn, potatoes, leeks, onions, tomatoes, beans and something called lenga lenga, or pigweed as it’s known in English. Some of them have kept seeds from previous years. 

An assortment of crops from the Garden City Harvest CSA that were dropped off at Little Twigs / Greta Bates

This was the first growing season for Afghan farmers, as just about all of them have arrived since August 2021, and they told us they found a climate very similar to their home country here in Missoula. They were especially excited about onions, carrots, corn, cabbage and beans. 

Greta Bates, a Soft Landing Missoula employee who oversees the summer food program, said the farmers would go every day because they have to water given Missoula’s dry conditions. “It’s amazing how they commit to it. There are mothers spending so much time on these plots despite working full-time, feeding the family, raising kids,” she said. “They do love it.” 

None of this would have been possible without generous donations from community partners. 

Garden City Harvest, a nonprofit in Missoula that does great work in the food sovereignty space, among other things, offers an income-based scholarship program to all residents. We supported clients in that application process and allocated funding for some of the cost, but Garden City Harvest provided meaningful scholarships to many refugee farmers so they could access the plots. The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, which works to expand local farming opportunities, paid for the community garden plots at Tower Roads. Seedlings 4 Solidarity, an anti-hunger mutual aid organization, provided seed starters which can be extraordinarily expensive, but are required for many crops in Missoula with our short growing season. 

Soft Landing Missoula’s food program also included a weekly CSA pickup – a huge benefit to refugee and immigrant community members who rely on fresh produce but often struggle to access it. 

This was our third year working in partnership with Garden City Harvest, this time with the team over at their River Road Farm (shout-out to Greg Price who oversaw the growing and donations at the farm!). 

Every Friday for 18 weeks between June and October, a Soft Landing staff member would pick up produce from the River Road CSA booth – an assortment of leftover items that had not been collected by CSA members as well as specific items that Greg had grown more of because he knows they’re popular among refugee community members – and drop it off at a couple locations where women could do their own shopping, so to speak. 

The biggest pickup would be at Little Twigs, a local childcare facility that serves 50 children between the ages of 0 and 6-years-old and is staffed almost entirely by refugee women who are able to work on professional development, leadership training and English language skills. This summer, Little Twigs employed 15 refugee women as childcare providers. 

Many of these women would avail themselves of the weekly CSA produce. 

Onions always went, especially among the Afghan women, as did cucumbers. Basil was surprisingly popular – the Afghan women use it to make potpourri while Congolese women use it medicinally. 

At first, kale wasn’t a huge hit, but some of the Congolese started to use it for stews. And while green beans were coveted by all, kohlrabi and garlic scapes took a little bit of coaching on how to incorporate into traditional dishes from the Congo or Afghanistan. 

Garden City Harvest donated over 2,000 pounds of produce this summer. Every week included a beautiful mix like this one! / Greta Bates

Garden City Harvest provided over 2,000 pounds of produce this summer – a staggering number that included a huge diversity of vegetables, herbs and other items. We owe them a HUGE thank you! 

Soft Landing’s summer food program creates tremendous joy, but we believe it’s also essential to the emotional and mental health and wellness of refugee and immigrant community members we serve. 

Research overwhelmingly that reliable access to culturally appropriate food promotes mental health and physical wellbeing. One 2021 study from the journal Food Security concluded that “Inadequate access to cultural foods can create cultural stress and affect one’s identity and well-being.” Another study, published in 2020, found that sharing food culture helps people make sense of and maintain their own self identity in multicultural communities, supporting mental health in the process. 

Additionally, we all know that a diet rich in nutrients and fresh food is important; however, the cost of food has skyrocketed in this macroeconomic environment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food between April 2021 and April 2022 rose by 10.8%, the largest increase since the same time period ending November 1980. 

As an organization that strives to create an environment where refugees and immigrants can integrate and thrive in Missoula, we believe our food program helps meet an essential need – feeding a family. It also feeds another kind of need – the desire of many refugee and immigrant community members to feel connected to their home countries and their cultural traditions so that they can be the truest and fullest versions of themselves in their new home here in Missoula.

This is a story of Gathering….

“Life in America can be difficult, especially for those of us who are used to being surrounded by people,”

– a friend from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who shared this with me recently

As we listen to friends from the Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, and Syria, we continue to learn how we can create a better—and long-lasting—welcome. 

We often hear from the people who come through the doors of our Community Center that one of the things they miss most about home is gathering with friends and family. 

The experiences that force families to leave their relatives and homes coupled with the loneliness that can come with building life in a new place makes community and connection essential parts of new neighbors’ transitions.

For many, gathering is a large part of mental health and wellbeing. New neighbors thrive when they have many opportunities to gather and build community throughout the year.

Your contribution to Soft Landing Missoula gives those who arrive here as refugees and immigrants opportunities to gather, grow, and thrive. 

With the generous help of our supportive community, Soft Landing is able to offer many ways to gather and build community all year long.

Our Community Center is a gathering place and hub of connection. It’s where new neighbors come for support and resources, to visit over a cup of tea, or to celebrate life’s major milestones.

The Youth Program brings together young people for after school tutoring as well as a variety of social and recreational activities where they can build friendships.

United We Eat hosts Welcome Dinners to provide the space for refugee and immigrant families to gather during cultural holidays, and to celebrate with volunteers, community partners, and newcomers over a shared meal reminiscent of home.

Gatherings on World Refugee Day and throughout the summer bring together new neighbors from different cultures highlighting the power of music, dance, food, and soccer as tools to provide connection and inspire joy.

As the community of refugees and immigrants in Missoula continues to grow, everyone has a role to play in creating a place where newcomers enjoy a soft landing, a long welcome, and opportunities to gather, grow, and thrive.

During this season of gathering, I hope you’ll show your support of refugee and immigrant families here in our community with a year-end gift. Your donation helps create these many beautiful opportunities—big and small—for new neighbors to gather and build community.

In love and gratitude,

Mary Poole, 
ED Soft Landing Missoula

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President Joe Biden Sets Goal of Welcoming 125,000 Refugees

Explaining Presidential Determination: A Key Component of Refugee Resettlement 

The United States could welcome up to 125,000 resettled refugees over the next twelve months, an ambitious goal to provide a soft landing to some of the world’s most vulnerable people in this country.

Ahead of every fiscal year – which for the federal government runs from October 1 to the following September 30 – the President consults with Congress to set the maximum number of refugees the country can accept during that period. This process also includes specific allocations for how many people can arrive to the United States from particular regions of the world. 

It’s called the Presidential Determination, and it’s important not just as a guidepost for the year but also as a way for local resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee Missoula (IRC) and organizations such as our own to plan their budgets, priorities, and programs. 

When President Joe Biden took office, he committed to rebuilding and resourcing the resettlement program which had been gutted by the prior administration under Donald Trump. The former president used resettlement – and immigration more broadly – as a political cudgel, reducing funding for the system and eliminating jobs both in this country and abroad essential to the process. 

In an effort to rebuild the system, President Biden announced for his first full year in office the highest resettlement target in decades – 125,000 people – and he maintained that same goal for the current fiscal year that just began. 

Origin of Presidential Determination 

When President Jimmy Carter signed the United States Refugee Act in 1980, landmark legislation that codified a refugee resettlement program, he did so wanting to double the number of people welcomed from ravaged war zones in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia every month. 

The hallmark bill – which enjoyed widespread bipartisan support at its signing –  gives the authority to the President to determine the maximum number of refugees to arrive in the United States every fiscal year, and it’s meant to allow flexibility to respond to ever-changing global conflict and displacement. 

It also requires the President to submit a report to Congress detailing the current status of global displacement and the United States’ foreign policy as it pertains to resettlement; an explanation for the year’s target number; and an analysis of possible impacts on local communities and economies. 

Since President Carter signed this bill into law, nearly 3.5 million people have gone through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) created by the legislation, according to State Department data, making it the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. 

During that time, the quota set by the Presidential Determination has fluctuated greatly, from 231,700 in 1980 as the United States sought to resettle the many people fleeing the wake of the Vietnam War to a historically low 18,000 in 2020 during the final year of President Donald Trump’s administration. 

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Photo by Jack Stapleton on Unsplash

The Reality  of Presidential Determination 

While it’s important to recognize this effort on the part of the United States to resettle refugees, it’s equally critical to acknowledge that we, as a country, have fallen far short of our refugee resettlement goals year-after-year with rare exceptions. 

After the September 11 terror attacks, the Presidential Determination was set at 70,000 for the following six years. During that time, the process became so bogged down by bureaucracy and stringent vetting informed that only a fraction of that target was reached. And although President Biden set the goal of 125,000 people last fiscal year, fewer than 20,000 individuals actually arrived in the United States through the resettlement process – a count separate from the Afghans who arrived through humanitarian parole.

At Soft Landing Missoula, we are privileged to have welcomed the Afghans who have fled their homes since Kabul fell in August 2021, and we think it’s critical that our doors remain open to those who remain in Afghanistan as well as those who must urgently flee other conflicts such as the war in Ukraine. 

However, it’s equally important that we acknowledge how these new pathways to arrival in the United States have slowed down the process for people who have been waiting years to be resettled here, often in refugee camps or other precarious living situations. Although the current presidential administration aspires to rebuild the resettlement system so it can process refugees and asylum seekers more quickly, it simply doesn’t have the capacity to meet the current demand – and additional programs, critical as they might be, set aside for Afghans and Ukrainians have slowed it down even more. 

All this as the world faces a severe displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 100 million people are currently living against their will outside of their homes, the highest number in history. 

“The cases of hundreds of thousands of refugees from many other countries around the world have been languishing for years,” said Sunil Varghese, Policy Director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, in a statement. “The refugee admissions target should be followed by concrete actions to improve the refugee resettlement process and actually resettle more refugees.” 

What Presidential Determination Means for Missoula 

Once the United States sets the maximum total number of refugees who could be welcomed here as new neighbors, it then determines how many people will be resettled to which cities. This is an important step in the process so that local resettlement agencies and services providers can prepare. 

Here in Missoula, our local resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) could see as many as 250 people come as new arrivals to our beautiful corner of Western Montana. We don’t yet know where people will be coming from, or when they will arrive, and that information is often not learned until a few weeks before a family flies into Missoula.

If the country fails to meet its resettlement goals, cities nationwide – including Missoula – are directly impacted, unable to welcome as many refugees as they would otherwise be able to as a result. 

Last fiscal year, Missoula was approved to welcome 250 people, and the IRC was prepared to shepherd that process. However, closer to 150 new neighbors were ultimately resettled here. Of that, about 100 Afghans arrived through a distinct pathway called Afghan Humanitarian Parole (APA), just about 50 individuals were directed to Missoula as refugees through the traditional resettlement process. 

While we anticipate the majority of people who will arrive this coming year via resettlement will be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria as well as possibly from other communities from countries we already work with such as Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we also know that things can change quickly. For example, there is a new path to private sponsorship for those fleeing the war in Ukraine – called Uniting for Ukraine – and Ukrainian families have already started to arrive in Missoula.

There remain many unknowns about how and if this new model of private sponsorship could be used by the federal government in the future to support other groups fleeing conflict and to supplement traditional resettlement. Recognizing the continued complexity of global displacement, we are eager to continue the important work of welcoming any and all new neighbors here at Soft Landing, working closely with our partners at the IRC and the Missoula community more broadly.