Popcorn and fruit snacks decorated the floor of our Community Center after another busy day at Soft Landing Missoula.
That day was alive with excitement as 60 children and adults from all over the world dropped in to pick up back-to-school backpacks and supplies.
The Community Center was packed with families. Some were brand new to Missoula. Others have been here for years. A few folks made a quick stop, but most stayed a while, taking time to visit with other families and Soft Landing Missoula staff and volunteers.
Our Community Center is a place of gathering and a springboard for all of the support and resources we offer to new neighbors. This day is one of many that shows how vital this safe, welcoming, and inviting space is for people who come to Missoula as refugees and immigrants.
Today, we are serving more people, from more countries, in more ways than ever before.
It amazes me to be able to tell you that because it shows how as a community we rise to welcome newcomers. It illustrates the beautiful richness and diversity of our Missoula. At the same time it is a heartbreaking reflection of so many global humanitarian crises.
Because so many people must leave homes and loved ones behind, our work of welcome persists.
One of the most important things you can do to help new neighbors is to make sure they have a place like Soft Landing Missoula where they can come for support, celebration, and connection through your year-end contribution.
Can we count on you to contribute this season so that we can continue to serve a growing community of refugees and immigrants now and into the future?
Rebuilding a life from scratch in a new place takes time. Whether here for 6 months or 6 years, Soft Landing’s “long welcome” adapts and evolves to provide family-friendly support for all who need it.
You are essential to this work of welcome and as we grow, your support now is as important as ever.
Early on, families come to us to pick up winter coats and items to furnish their homes, get started with our in-house driver’s education, or get their kids involved in our youth program. The list of things to learn, do, and figure out in their new home can be exhausting.
Eventually, families want to learn about cooking with United We Eat or explore housing options when the rent is raised. At that point, they’re settling in and eager to find ways to further participate in their new community.
After several years of living here, we hear from families wanting to achieve citizenship, make big life purchases such as homes, or figure out how to start a small business. And of course, they still seek out ways to gather as a community through the many events we offer.
We’re so excited about this lineup of events to help us all celebrate Welcoming Week this year! A nationwide cultural initiative, Welcoming Week uplifts the refugee and immigrant experiences, promotes the value of creating inclusive communities and hopes to inspire us all to continue the important work of welcome in Missoula and beyond! We’re grateful for the continued support of wonderful community partners who make these events possible, and we hope to see you all out and about as we celebrate!
When refugee families arrive in Missoula, one of the things they are often most excited about is the chance to have a place to call home. Unfortunately, for a number of recently resettled refugee families, their first stop isn’t a house or an apartment where they can put down roots, but rather a hotel.
Most refugee families who have been resettled here since late April are still living in hotels.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Missoula, the local resettlement agency, receives federal funding and a mandate to secure safe, sanitary and affordable housing at market rate to refugees when they arrive. Units must be large enough to house a family with two people per room, and it must have at least a six-month lease. Federal funding helps pay the rent for the first few months, but the goal is for adults to secure jobs that allow them to pay the monthly rent on their own. Usually, the organization has about 90 days to find this housing.
It’s not uncommon for new neighbors to spend a couple weeks in hotels when they first arrive as the IRC in Missoula irons out details with lease agreements. Rooms must be able to support extended stays and include a full kitchen, and most of Missoula’s options that meet these requirements are far outside of town, away from public transportation. AirBnb rentals are used too, but they are expensive and hard to come by during the high season of summer tourism.
Hotel and AirBnB stays are costly. Long stays in temporary housing drain the IRC in Missoula’s federal funds. Meant to last months to support new families and meet their basic needs, these funds are being exhausted within two to three weeks as a result.
We have seen firsthand how Missoulians readily support neighbors. If you know of any possible housing options, please let us know.
The current situation has grown so difficult that the IRC in Missoula has requested a pause on new refugee arrivals, the first time the agency has had to do so since reopening its doors in 2016.
We acknowledge efforts by city officials to address this ongoing crisis that impacts all community members, but we also recognize that a continued housing shortage could threaten the future of resettlement in Missoula.
As joint partners in the work of resettlement, the IRC in Missoula and Soft Landing Missoula are putting out a call to community members for any leads on three- or four-bedroom housing options for rent of six months or more within city limits. The IRC in Missoula can work with private landlords and property management companies.
While things are worse now, the reality is that refugees, in particular, have long faced barriers to securing housing that predate this acute crisis.
To rent a house in Missoula, you’re asked to show things like rental history and a credit history. Most newcomers have lived in refugee camps for years or fled their home due to conflict, so they typically lack such records, causing some landlords to request double, and even triple deposits at times. Even if a refugee family can afford the monthly rent, new arrivals rarely have the kind of savings that would make it financially possible to put that kind of deposit together upfront.
These requirements serve as barriers that are all but insurmountable for many refugees. Even with the endorsement and support of the IRC in Missoula, only a couple companies in town have been willing to rent to refugee families. As such, an already-severe shortage of housing options dwindles even further.
We’re working with local partners to see what reasonable accommodations, if any, might be available to new neighbors in order to ease this process. Missoula’s ability to be a place that welcomes refugees and provides an opportunity for new neighbors to integrate so our whole community can thrive hinges on the availability of housing units that meet the requirements of the IRC in Missoula’s federal contract and provide dignity to families.
According to Zumper, a rental aggregation site, the median rental price for a one-bedroom unit in Missoula as of July 2023 was $1,250 per month, up 14% from last year. Many refugee and immigrant families with whom we work are large, so they require a bigger space. Renters looking for a three-bedroom and four-bedroom unit should expect to pay $2,245 and $2,598, respectively.
Generally speaking, experts say that a healthy rental market has a vacancy rate somewhere between 5% and 8%, so that tenants can move into units at a reasonable price and still have some choice in where they end up. A low vacancy rate means that demand far outpaces supply, which drives costs up and pushes people out of the rental market.
Our entire community has been impacted by this difficult combination of high prices and low supply. The Missoula Housing Authority recently opened its doors to two new apartment complexes, adding roughly 200 units of affordable housing units allocated for households earning a range of incomes. People are moving into the complexes, called the Trinity and Villagio, including refugee families, but this is just a start. As of 2021, over 1,400 people were on a waitlist for housing vouchers, and the Missoula Housing Authority says that people will often wait years to get into its affordable housing units.
We have seen time-and-time again how Missoulians rise to the occasion to support fellow neighbors. That’s why we’re putting this call out for any potential leads on housing options, including a chance to forge relationships with individual homeowners/landlords and/or new property management companies. While a three- or four-bedroom option with a six-month or longer lease would be ideal, shorter alternatives to get families out of hotels would also be hugely beneficial. Again, the units must be within Missoula city limits.
Even if it’s one unit and one family at a time, we believe there’s progress that can be made!
Please reach out to the IRC in Missoula with any questions or information: email@example.com
If you’re able, please consider donating a used car to make an extraordinary difference in the lives of new neighbors.
Upon arrival to Missoula, many refugees and immigrants quickly realize that many of the places essential for them to access – their workplace, their kids’ schools, the grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy and more – aren’t necessarily close to one another. While the bus system helps, anyone who has relied on it as their sole form of transportation knows that it can make trips longer or more cumbersome. Add to it a language barrier, lack of familiarity with a new city and Montana’s often extreme weather conditions, and many families find themselves simply staying put or spending hours traveling from place to place.
Even with a license, most families don’t have a car – and getting one means a hefty payment that few new neighbors can afford. We’ve been fortunate to receive a number of donated cars throughout the years, and we see how these generous gifts make an immediate and material impact on a family’s life.
To put things into perspective, here is a typical day-in-the-life for a newly arrived refugee family in Missoula: Dad has work at 6:00 am. He carpools each way with a coworker. Mom wakes up and helps her four kids – two old enough to be enrolled in school, two more still infants – get ready. The older two catch the bus to school, and then she walks with her babies to the nearest bus stop, usually no closer than a quarter-mile to head to daycare. The trip requires one transfer to the childcare facility, and then she hops on a third bus to get to her workplace. She does it all again after work.
All told, this family spends 90-minutes or more traveling between essential stops when it could take 15 minutes in a private vehicle. And that’s just for one day’s necessities! During the winter, this voyage includes frigid temperatures and icy sidewalks. Come summertime, the walks are typically more pleasant, but waiting for the bus in smoky air or scalding afternoon heat takes a toll.
Having a car is a huge lift off of families’ shoulders. And, just as critically, it affords them the freedom connect to their new home more deeply, through activities we all love like going to the park, visiting with friends, and getting to know their new community!
Soft Landing maintains a long waiting list of families who need a car. At any point in time, we have about 15 families whose lives would be meaningfully improved with more reliable transportation and the independence it affords. And that list is only growing as more and more people are resettled in Missoula.
We’re turning to you, this generous and supportive community, for help! If you or anyone you know is looking for a way to make a difference for a refugee or immigrant neighbor in Missoula and also happens to have a car you’re looking to offload, please consider donating it to Soft Landing. We would be extraordinarily appreciative!
Donated vehicles should be in good working condition. Many of the families we work with have limited funds for repairs. Once we learn of a new donor, we reference our waiting list and let the family know about the good news. They are always elated.
Because of our non-profit status, Soft Landing cannot take ownership of the vehicle, which means we are unable to provide a donation receipt. We do help in the vehicle handoff as well as help the family/client navigate registration and insurance. Please reach out with any questions to Greta Bates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grill smoke wafts into the air at Fort Missoula, carrying the distinct smells of meats cooked over charcoal into every corner, the sure sign of a good summertime party. Colorful flags drape the pavilion’s brick pillars, and smaller versions dot the picnic tables. A steady drumbeat of music from Djebe Bara reverberates throughout the space, creating a pleasant backdrop to the persistent hum of conversation and laughter. Off in the distance, soccer players zip up and down the field, the bright hues of their jerseys a stark contrast to the earthy green of the turf and the blue sky above. There’s face-painting, a balloon animal station, and Sweet Peaks ice cream scoops doled out at warp speed.
All this can only mean one thing: World Refugee Day in Missoula!
June 20th is a day designated internationally by the United Nations as World Refugee Day to honor the lives, experiences, strength, and resilience of refugees around the globe. Such a celebration helps to focus global attention, at least for one day, on the realities facing people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and to shine a light on their full personhood — including not only their pasts, but their present and future rights, needs, and dreams.
Here in Missoula, we hosted an annual gathering – really, a big ole party – to bring refugees, immigrants, partners, volunteers, and other community members together to celebrate this experience. Our event this year took place on June 17th at Fort Missoula – and it was our biggest ever! Nearly 450 people turned out to support and uplift the refugee experience and honor the journey.
For those of you who couldn’t make it, believe us when we say it was SO fun! For those of you who were able to attend, THANK YOU for being there!
The United Nations first commemorated World Refugee Day in 2001. June 20th was selected as the date to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of global legal protection for refugees and the somber, but necessary recognition of their place as one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the world. The 1951 Convention defined ‘refugee,’ outlined the assistance a refugee is entitled to receive — such as housing, work, and education — and formed the basis of the UNHCR’s work that continues today.
The Convention was born of the crisis facing millions of people forced to flee their home countries in the wake of both World War I and World War II. Today, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world exceeds 100 million, nearly 33 million of whom meet the legal definition of ‘refugee’ set forth by that 1951 Convention. More than 72% of people displaced are originally from Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine, Afghanistan, or South Sudan.
For Soft Landing Missoula, World Refugee Day is one of the most powerful, inspirational, and joy-filled moments of our year. We have learned so much from refugee community members about how they view the day as a celebration — of where they come from, where they are, and where they are going — so we strive to create moments that speak to these milestones.
We are grateful and honored to share in many of those moments, chief among them World Refugee Day. This year’s event was filled with soccer, delicious food prepared by the United We Eat kitchen and chefs, music, and time spent building community with so many Missoulians, including new neighbors and longtime residents.
United We Eat prepared a bonafide feast: Eritrean lentils from Chef Takea and injera from Chef Merry; Afghan kofta from Chef Farida; Congolese goat skewers from Chef Moses; Syrian shish tawook (chicken) from Chef Shaza; Guinean spicy chicken soup from Chef Oumar; and a number of spreads, veggie sides, and coffee from the kitchen staff.
PHEW! It was delicious, and we heard from so many people that they loved getting to experience a variety of cuisine from around the world all at once. Kids also loved the falafel wraps from Kamoon and the slices of piping hot ‘za from Bridge Pizza!
We were also grateful to have a number of community organizations attend the event, providing information and ways to get involved or access services. The City of Missoula sent a number of representatives, including Mayor Jordan Hess and the Fire and Police Departments.
Our soccer tournament included four teams with the championship match being a clash of the titans between two of the squads that had dominated the field for most of the day. Winners were gracious, but very excited to don their medals throughout dinner!
None of this would have been possible without the invaluable participation of volunteers and sponsors. Volunteers spent hours with us in service of this larger celebration. They stood in front of hot grills so people had freshly cooked skewers to eat; moved picnic tables and decorated the pavilion; sold merchandise; provided transportation; and so much more.
And Lead Sponsors Clearwater Credit Union and ATG, a Cognizant Company, were instrumental in giving us the financial support we needed to pull off an event of this scale so successfully.
As Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess said during his remarks at the event, this community is much stronger and greatly enriched thanks to the immense contributions of refugee neighbors.
Thank you to everyone who continues to support this work of Welcome – this World Refugee Day and every day!
Missoula Strikers and Soft Landing Missoula partner to support refugee youth team
We often say that soccer – or, as those of us at Soft Landing are learning to say, football – needs no translation. People from all over the world arrive in Missoula, and despite everything they have endured to get here and what can be a difficult transition to an entirely new home, put a soccer ball in front of them, and much of the tough stuff seems to fade into the background.
Soccer is the most popular global sport, by far and away. Some estimates suggest that over 240 million people around the world play, and the number of fans soars into the billions. When refugees arrive in Missoula, one of their first questions is where to find a field and fellow players for a pickup game.
Missoula Strikers has helped to create this opportunity for kids and teenagers in the community for decades. The nonprofit focuses on developing a love of the global game and building talent among youth players by facilitating recreational teams and regular play throughout the year. Since the earliest years of Soft Landing, the Strikers organization has been an integral partner in making soccer – a vital resource for mental health and social connection among refugees in Missoula – accessible to new neighbors.
“Since the first refugee family arrived in Missoula, Strikers has been committed to making soccer accessible,” said Molly Cottrell, co-founder and deputy director of Soft Landing.
Though Strikers has made program participation free for refugee families for years, this year the support went even further. A school counselor at a local Middle school had heard from multiple refugee students that they wanted to play on a team with their fellow refugee students, and she reached out to Joe Larson, the program director for Missoula Strikers, to see what he could do.
An exciting idea emerged: Strikers would provide two coaches for the team – Joe and Charlie from Soccer Alliance Missoula, another local group that brings together soccer organizations to reduce barriers to the game – and Soft Landing would organize volunteers to help with communication with refugee families and provide transportation. (For many refugee families, transportation is a huge barrier to participation in recreational programs outside of school hours, so this is a major help).
“We appreciate their long partnership and love that it was elevated this year,” Molly said.
Joe raved about his experience coaching a team of refugee players. Thirteen students participated in the spring season, practicing once per week and playing each Sunday. He knows firsthand about the role that sport can play in helping any individual, but especially a refugee or immigrant, find his way in Missoula. His brother-in-law arrived in Missoula during the 1980s from Vietnam.
“Youth soccer is something that helps individuals become better humans,” Joe said. “For refugee youth, it’s something more familiar than traditional American sports and hopefully helps with easing their resettlement in Missoula.”
While refugee students have participated on other Strikers teams in the past, the idea to have a team of people who share similar lived experiences came directly from kids themselves. It speaks to the power and comfort of spending time with people who might understand a little bit more about you and your life, who speak your language, or who can understand the things you’ve been through – a familiarity made all the more valuable when so much of life in Missoula might still feel new and different.
“Whether they were born in Syria or Missoula, the motivation is the same,” Joe said. “They just want to have fun and play with their friends.”
When refugee families arrive in Missoula, they’re often eager to figure out how they can start building a new life in their new home. A big part of that is creating economic stability as well as sharing their cultures with their new neighbors here in Missoula. So many people we meet are incredibly talented — Soft Landing works with artists and poets, fashion designers and photographers, makers of all kinds, and, of course, many amazing chefs through the United We Eat program — and they are excited to build their own businesses to share those talents with the community.
While Soft Landing staff and volunteers worked helped some individuals get their booths off the ground — things like permit application and signage — it’s the families themselves that do the work of creating, preparing, and selling week after week. We encourage you all to check out what they have to offer!
CLARK FORK MARKET
The Shbib Family: Try some of their famous baked goods and flatbreads! But be sure to get there early because lots of regular customers make this their first stop on Saturday mornings! Originally from Syria, the Shbibs moved to Missoula over three years ago after spending eight years in Cairo. Rozan, one of the daughters, works in the United We Eat kitchen, and her mother, Muna is a chef in the program! We recommend taking a cup of their strong coffee to-go as you walk around the rest of the market.
Mohammed and Shatha: Every day, Shatha spends a full day in the kitchen preparing sweet treats in her home kitchen, and Mohammed comes to the market on Saturdays to sell the tasty desserts. His favorites are her pistachio baklava, harissa cake, and date mahmoul! They are originally from Homs, Syria but have been in Missoula since 2017 and are now both citizens of the United States!
Kamoon Arabian Cuisine and Ragheef: There’s always a line down the aisle for these delicious food trucks — but we promise the wait is worth it! Run by brother and sister Ammar Omar and Zena Omar, who are originally from Baghdad, Iraq but arrived in Missoula in 2017, the trucks dole out delicious and classic cuisine from their home country such as falafel, dolmas and manakeesh — flatbreads topped with cheese, meats, and other delicious spices. The Omars started with one one food truck but have since grown to operating FOUR at the market thanks to the help of additional family members from Iraq and Syria have been resettled in Missoula. “The farmers’ market is our favorite time in the year you produce what we think people really like and share our culture through our food and trying to find ways to be closer together with the community as the market is the first Missoulians destination during summer and our best time to be in touch with people,” Zena says.
Suhad and Hussein: After a couple years away from Missoula, Suhad and Hussein are back in Missoula — and we sure are happy about it! Originally from Baghdad, Suhad has been cooking since she was eight-years-old, and her booth at the market will be filled with Iraqi baked goods that remind her of her home country and its rich culinary tradition.
MISSOULA FARMERS’ MARKET
Basmeh: This is Bashmeh’s first year at the Missoula Farmer’s Market, and she is so excited to be here! Originally from Daraa, Syria, Basmeh and her family arrived to Missoula in February 2022 after spending time in Jordan. She thinks everyone should try her basbousa — a sticky, moist semolina cake — and mabrumeh — a rolled dessert with sweetened pistachios in the middle. But Basmeh says she thinks everything she cooks in her home kitchen and sells at the market is delicious! If you stop by, say ‘marhaba’ as a common greeting!
MISSOULA PEOPLE’S MARKET
Kamar: Her candles are absolutely gorgeous! Kamar arrived to Missoula last year with her husband and two children. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, they spent years in Lebanon before being resettled in Montana. Kamar started making candles with her mother nearly 20 years ago, and she’s now thrilled to be selling her candles at the Peoples’ Market. One day, Kamar hopes to build an entire business named after her son Jude to help support her family. She’d love for you to stop by and pick up her handicraft!
Natalia Boise, Soft Landing’s Youth Program Coordinator, decided to spend a couple months in Greece earlier this year volunteering at a refugee services organization. We were so grateful to hear about her experience, and her reflections were so compelling that we had to share!
Entry #1: ‘Who do we allow ourselves to learn from?’
I’m not sure what I was expecting on my first day volunteering at a refugee care center in Greece, but it was not to be spending hours cleaning out and organizing the donation room of the chaotic, massively underfunded and understaffed, and unexpectedly rigid organization. Based on my conversations with the program, I imagined I might be volunteering with the kids program, sitting in on an English class, or perhaps assisting with programming. Instead, I spent much of the day with a broom in hand or sifting through boxes of unwanted thrift store donations and shipments from abroad.
Unexpected as it was, this experience led me to reflect on who we allow ourselves to learn from, and- ultimately- the realization that despite my years of experience working with refugees, teaching English abroad, and coordinating volunteers, I will never have the same wealth of lived experience as individuals who receive services.
I worked with a refugee care organization in Greece that has been around about the same amount of time as Soft Landing, but with 11 fewer staff members. Its focus is on filling basic needs for refugees who have very recently fled their home countries and applied for asylum in Greece or are waiting to be transferred to other countries. It reminded me of the early days of Soft Landing – where I first worked as an intern – but it grew from different seeds. One developed out of an ask to bring refugees to a small mountain town, another out of a crisis that forced millions of people from their homes with no choice but to cross a sea and end up in a city unprepared for such massive need. Organizations that come up in this kind of environment, like the one I worked for in Greece, survive out of necessity – they learn to operate on basically nothing to be able to provide just enough, enough for a few hundred people to access a few basic needs a few days a week.
Working in the donation room and bagging groceries for hundreds of refugees, I reflected on the privilege of working with an organization like Soft Landing, one that has the capacity to reach higher than simply meeting basic survival needs but also to fulfill spiritual, emotional, and community needs. It starts with sweeping the floor, organizing a donation room, or slicing and buttering 80 pieces of bread. What can be considered menial tasks meet basic human needs. But they also form the foundation for an organization to grow into a place that fosters spiritual and emotional community – a place like Soft Landing.
Creating an environment where community can be built requires a number of things: meeting basic needs; human connection; positive space for that connection to happen; trust; and a willingness for reciprocity. In coming into a space with experience in a differently developed organization, I felt frustration at being tasked with things that on the surface seem inconsequential. I felt they must stand to learn something from me as a person with specific experience in this field. I wondered if it was my age, or my volunteer status, or that I’m an American that kept them from recognizing my potential contribution. I came to realize that, ultimately, we can learn much more from reciprocity and allowing ourselves to be taught by lived experience as much as we are taught by professional experience.
In other words: I had a lot to learn from this organization and those who passed through its doors, even if I had spent years making a career out of working with refugees. In our work in a field primarily dominated by white women working at non-profits, it becomes critical to ask the question: Who do we allow ourselves to learn from? When describing the work I do at Soft Landing to people here, one of my favorite things to highlight is how much I have loved taking the cooking classes taught by chefs for United We Eat. One of the things I value most in this work is what I have learned from the people we serve, and who serve us in return. This reciprocity, I believe, is what has led Soft Landing to be successful and capable of building such a strong space for community building, and where I believe there is always space for more learning and reciprocity. I find that my greatest moments of joy here in Thessaloniki are moments of connection with others; moments that transcend societal concepts of personhood, of roles of client and provider, of teacher and learner, to become a culture of reciprocity, something which I believe Soft Landing Missoula is striving to achieve through community engagement and creating space that fosters joy, community, trust, creativity, and kindness.
Entry #2: ‘I see myself in you’
“I see myself in you” is a phrase I came across in community work years ago that stuck with me- that often we are best able to connect with other people when we are able to see each other not through a lens- but through a mirror. One day during my time in Greece, a man from Afghanistan came into the refugee center. He patiently waited for his turn to enter the donation room– what a few other volunteers jokingly began to call the “boutique” – to find some shoes for his granddaughter. He said nothing and did not respond when I asked questions, the tears in his eyes and distraught expression weighing heavily. I tried to make light conversation by commenting on the amber ring he wore on his hand, matching one I had on mine that I had recently bought in the city. Saying nothing, he removed the ring to offer it to me. I had to stifle my own tears as I politely declined his generous offer, and felt that we saw ourselves in each other at that moment. Later that day, a man offered me green tea he had brought with him, and we shared a cup and talked about our families. Moments like these remind me that we are so much more alike than we are different.
One of my favorite parts of working with people from many cultural and linguistic backgrounds is the shared communication that exists between languages, space where gestures and eye contact and facial expressions create a mutual ground; where laughter has the same meaning; when a child hands me a plastic piece of food and falls down in a fit of giggles as I pretend to chomp hungrily, while neither of us have a shared name for the meal they served me. It is in these moments that we see ourselves clearly in others; that we share our humanity more than language or culture or words.
Language is powerful, which is why I’ve spent much of my life in pursuit of learning multiple of them – most recently, Greek. While in Greece, it was often so frustrating to have words I wanted to say in three different languages, but not in the one of the people around me. That frustration is nothing compared to the experience of people who flee their countries of origin as refugees. Those who arrive in the United States speak more languages than the average American will learn in a lifetime and they are asked to learn yet another when they are resettled. What’s more, they have to communicate about essential needs – housing, jobs, healthcare– and explore painful, often traumatic memories as they go through the resettlement process.
Despite my best efforts on Duolingo, being able to say “the pink gorilla” has not made it easier to find a bus or order in a restaurant, a humbling experience that fosters solidarity between myself and many of the refugees I served in Greece and continue to serve in Missoula. This time in Greece is leaving me with a greater sense of humility and openness to learning from others, and to creating intentional space for guidance from the people who understand their world better than I can.
Entry #3: Personhood
My privileges as an American in Greece gave me a certain level of perceived personhood that others here are not granted. I notice this in many areas of life, not least in the interactions with refugees, but also in the many people around this city and everywhere who suffer at being seen as less than people. Working through a line of people who come into the Refugee Care Center and wait their return to receive a weekly allotment of food or look through the donation room for used clothing carries a different weight than celebrating Soft Landing new neighbors passing their citizenship test, dancing with kids at after school tutoring, or laughing as students try on costumes from Soft Landing’s donation room. These small moments of joy begin to be taken for granted, and in a space of limited resources, personhood falls behind as meeting basic needs becomes the priority.
As an American foreigner in Thessaloniki, I come with a number of privileges: I am white, I have secure nationality and advantages associated with that status, I speak English, and I have the financial resources to be able to dedicate volunteer time to an organization. My advantages in this do not go without acknowledgement. However, there are ways my status as a foreigner in this city helps me better relate to the people coming into the refugee care center. Maybe as a foreigner I can relate to other foreigners better, understand the perspective of someone living in a different culture and navigating the resources in a different country with a different residency status, albeit with privileges that make my existence here far easier.
One experience that stands out is the utter impossibility of existing in the world without a series of papers and numbers tied to your name, how stateless people are only stateless because they don’t have the right number connected to their birth; they aren’t coded in a system; they have no papers to define their existence within geopolitical boundaries. Trying to make a doctor’s appointment, I had to call several offices before I found anyone who spoke English, and then had to find someone who would accept a new patient with no social security number or phone number for Greece. To go to the doctor, I had to get a Covid test, although I had to go to several locations before anyone would administer a test to someone who did not have a social security number or phone number for Greece, and that was only because I had my U.S. passport with me. When I got to the doctor, they did not accept my American insurance, so I paid out of pocket for services. None of these things were a tremendous hurdle for me, and I was able to navigate all of it with the privileges I have. Still, it sheds light on how much more difficult it is to endure a system built for a very specific kind of person who has the exact right numbers and papers tied to their being, if you are someone who doesn’t fit that mold, doesn’t have those numbers to identify them as valuable in this place.
“Personhood” as it exists in society becomes more and more evasive the more dire a situation becomes for a person who needs it. The people in this world most in need and who suffer the most trauma are the ones most often denied personhood, whether in the form of numbers and papers tied to existence or in acknowledgement at the stoop of an apartment building. Twelve million people worldwide are stateless. Less than one percent of refugees globally will ever be resettled. Poverty is not only a cycle, but compounds itself when a person does not have the opportunity for work or education without statehood, without numbers and papers. Existing as a person in this world without statehood strips a person of opportunity, of respect, of a right to participate in society, and of dignity.
Entry #4: Reciprocity
Something I often mention in volunteer training is to not ask anyone to share their story; that sharing a story of trauma can be re-traumatizing and make people who have experienced trauma feel vulnerable. People will share their stories if and when they feel comfortable doing so. Better questions are those about culture, or food, or clothing, traditions. Many people volunteer at Soft Landing because they want to give their time, but find what they receive in return is much more valuable: the opportunity to learn from the people with whom they work.
Years ago, when I was just a volunteer for Soft Landing, I dropped off a family after driver’s ed class. They invited me in for a coffee, which turned into three coffees, which turned into three hours, which turned into plate after plate of food as I learned some Tigrinya and got to sample some of the best cooking I had ever had.
This sense of sharing culture and giving back in rich experience to volunteers and service providers enriches not just the sense of agency for refugees, but also the sense of connectedness for people working with refugees. Reciprocity makes people who have experienced trauma feel like they have more agency in their lives and recovery experience. Setting firm hierarchies between teacher and learner, service provider and client, or even subconsciously between “American” and “refugee” not only demeans individuals who have experienced trauma and strips them of personhood and agency, but also robs the organization and service provider of the opportunity to learn from the person who has far more lived experience and valuable insight. I continually find myself seeking input from students in the youth program about what they are interested in doing, especially after realizing how often perceived need does not align with reality. Much of my first year at Soft Landing was spent in a trial-and-error state of trying out programs. More and more, I recognize how much easier programs and events are when they involve the engagement of the participants to help guide them.
During my time in Thessaloniki, I had the opportunity to engage with a trauma-informed organization, AMNA, whose mission is to help communities to heal from violence and displacement. The organization was founded by an Afghan woman who fled to England with her family as a child, and wanted to support other refugees in the refugee crisis much of the world was experiencing in 2015. Out of that motivation came an organization that hosts programs to empower and support refugees. It hosts training for refugees so they can develop the skills to lead their own empowerment groups and eventually employs refugees to lead these groups so that people can see themselves in their leaders.
When I first reached out to the organization, I expected their models to include comprehensive curriculum and standard practices for serving refugees in a trauma-informed way, but the most important aspect of their programs is engaging clients directly in guiding and developing events and trainings This approach, of course, creates comprehensive development and trauma-informed training for service providers, but the programs themselves are less strict since they are client-led and directly involve input from and empowerment of the people they work with.
During my time in Greece, I was able to take a step back from direct service and think about how trauma-informed care can – and should – inform my work back home. It allowed me the space to evaluate practices and approaches, and it helped me understand that engaging the people we intend to serve in making decisions and contributing to the outcomes of the organization is not only valuing the personhood of those individuals, but creates a stronger organization. A trauma-informed organization has the potential to develop beyond the status quo to create a better environment for everyone: for clients, for staff, for partners, and for the community. This approach not only utilizes reciprocity as a tool to develop better, more compassionate care services, but also builds space for empowerment and engagement. This experience, seeing how other organizations interact with refugees, and witnessing the power of reciprocity, has allowed me to return to my work at Soft Landing here in Missoula with a renewed sense of dedication to programs that are informed and directed by participants. This started with a survey we had kids take at after school tutoring, and the idea to begin a leadership group for students to help become leaders in their community and provide feedback and insight into Soft Landing’s programs and events. What do we stand to learn when we allow ourselves to learn from those we serve? Hopefully the future of Soft Landing is guided by this continued curiosity.
The United States hopes to welcome 125,000 refugees this fiscal year, an ambitious goal that would mark a record-high number of new arrivals in more than three decades. To help do that, the federal government has launched a sweeping new program to increase the capacity of everyday Americans to participate in the resettlement process.
Welcome Corps, announced in mid-January, allows groups of five individuals to join together and sponsor refugees as they arrive in the United States. The program will be rolled out in two stages: the first – effective immediately – will pair sponsorship groups with refugees already approved for resettlement in the United States; the second – slated to begin this summer – will also allow sponsors to refer potential refugees for resettlement and sponsor their arrival should they be approved.
Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we have seen firsthand how so many families spend years waiting for the opportunity to build a new life in this country and the toll that can take on them. We believe the refugee resettlement process needs to be streamlined so we can more quickly welcome refugees, and we fully support the rebuilding of traditional resettlement pathways as well as creative solutions such as this one to achieve that goal.
Sponsors must raise an initial amount of $2,275 per refugee that is designated to support them during their first three months in this country with things like apartment deposits, furniture, transportation costs, and other needed items. They are also the first people to meet refugees when they get off the plane in their new homes, and sponsors are tasked with helping new neighbors connect with essential services such as healthcare and school; secure employment and job skills training; navigate transportation networks and local communities; and adjust to life in an entirely new place.
While sponsors will receive training from existing refugee services organizations, they should be prepared to be the primary point of contact and support systemfor new arrivals during their first three months in the United States. This is a serious and significant commitment. At that point, families may become eligible for other federal programs that the sponsors should also be prepared to help them access as they transition to this next phase in the resettlement process. Of course, it is also the hope that new arrivals and sponsor groups build a lasting connection of some kind that extends beyond the 90-day commitment.
Refugees arriving through Welcome Corps will have full refugee status, allowing them a permanent home in the United States with a five-year path to citizenship.
As Julieta Valls Noyes, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said during a virtual press conference, sponsors are expected to “serve as guides to the refugees in their new communities, first responders in times of need and role models.”
Groups of sponsors will be vetted by the U.S. government, required to show a plan for how to meet these requirements and subject to check-ins from government officials or existing local refugee resettlement organizations.
Why is this important?
Though there’s a long tradition of the United States welcoming vulnerable people fleeing crises all over the world, landmark legislation formalized the resettlement program and established the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in 1980. Since then, most refugees have arrived through resettlement guided by local refugee resettlement agencies – like the International Rescue Committee here in Missoula – which receive federal funding to support their work.
Welcome Corps is not meant to replace this existing path to resettlement, but rather to complement it so that the government can welcome more people at a faster pace. Right now, people wait years to be resettled in the United States. Biden administration officials believe this program will eventually help streamline the admissions process, increase the number of people admitted each year and help resolve the backlog of tens of thousands of people waiting for resettlement.
“At some level, it’s a math problem,” said John Finer, who works in the Office of the National Security Advisor, during a press conference.
For the Biden administration to meet its refugee admissions goal of 125,000 people in a single fiscal year, 10,400 people would have to arrive every month. Admissions, Finer said, is a “lagging indicator” behind the number of admissions interviews taking place overseas, and there have already been 20,000 interviews conducted in the first quarter of the current fiscal year. That means, as a country, we should see a significant jump in the number of arrivals in the coming months.
According to the Biden White House, the Welcome Corps program aims to have 10,000 Americans sign up as sponsors in order to support the arrival of 5,000 people this year – and grow from there. This goal shows that it’s not designed as a replacement for traditional resettlement pathways, but rather as another option to expand the system’s capacity, and the ability of everyday Americans to welcome.
Versions of this initiative have proven to work well in the United States.
Both programs allowed people experiencing acute crises to seek haven more quickly. However, many arrived with different immigration statuses – such as humanitarian parole – that did not give them a path to permanent lawful status and, eventually, citizenship. Additional programs to welcome Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians also offer a temporary solution under humanitarian parole, but typically don’t allow individuals to access essential public benefits. This situation leads to questions about a family’s ability to stay in the United States long-term, and it can introduce more hardship for the refugees and sponsors alike.
Those who arrive through the Welcome Corps private sponsorship will not have to grapple with such uncertainty, as they will arrive with refugee status and a path to citizenship after five years. Welcome Corps does not retroactively grant individuals who arrived under other private sponsorship programs with humanitarian parole status the same option.
What does this mean for Missoula?
When the Uniting for Ukraine program went live, about 100 people across Montana applied to be sponsors. We don’t yet know how many Montanans will take advantage of this new opportunity to sponsor refugees from all over the world – but we here at Soft Landing Missoula will continue to provide long term support and opportunities for connection and community-building for refugees and immigrants through our existing programming.
Missoula’s resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), will also continue to receive refugee arrivals this year – up to 250 individuals, which would mark its busiest year – through the traditional resettlement pathway. But the IRC will not be primarily responsible for those refugees who arrive through Welcome Corps.
Work together with your group using the resources provided through Welcome Corps training and information sessions to form your Welcome Plan. This will be required as part of your application, and it includes your step-by-step plan for how to successfully welcome new arrivals, connect them with essential needs like housing, healthcare and employment and help them integrate fully into the Missoula community. It’s also your chance to become familiar with essential resources and systems of support in Missoula- including areas in which Soft Landing Missoula does and does not work.
What if full private sponsorship isn’t for me, but I still want to help?
While private sponsorship can be a wonderful way to welcome, it requires significant commitment. The sponsorship team must be able to devote time, financial assistance and other resources to ensure the refugees they sponsor are adequately supported upon their arrival and transition to the United States.
It won’t be a viable option for many people. But there are other ways to get involved with efforts to welcome refugees and immigrants in Missoula! Up to 250 new neighbors will arrive through the traditional resettlement process, and there are always families who have been here for months or years and continue to need support. Follow the International Rescue Committee and our work at Soft Landing Missoula to see how you can help – there are always opportunities for volunteers, in-kind donations and financial assistance.
You might be hearing rumblings about changes to a state program that makes childcare more affordable for families earning low incomes. Montana’s Health Department is poised to end pandemic-era financial support to a scholarship program that has helped thousands of families afford childcare during the pandemic, including many of those we work with at Soft Landing Missoula.
We wanted to provide you with a little more information on what you might be hearing as we continue to educate ourselves on how this will impact refugee families as well as the community more broadly.
What is the Best Beginnings Scholarship Program?
Best Beginnings existed before the COVID-19 pandemic as a program to offset the cost of childcare for families who earn low incomes. Households with income at or below 150% of the Federal Poverty Line with children attending a licensed childcare center may be eligible to receive the Best Beginnings scholarship. For context: In 2022, the federal poverty line for a family of four is a household annual income of $27,750.
Before COVID-19, Best Beginnings allowed families to make a monthly copayment on a sliding scale, determined by how much they make each year and family size. Families at the poverty line, for example, would pay less than a family at 150% of the poverty line. The state would reimburse the childcare facility for the remainder of the fee not covered by that copay; however the state’s rate would often be slightly less than the care provider’s going rate to full-paying customers. Therefore, childcare providers were not required to accept the Best Beginnings Scholarship, in part because they were technically making slightly less than they could otherwise.
In 2021, as many families continued to struggle financially, Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services used pandemic federal aid money to provide additional support. It subsidized the monthly co-pay significantly, so that every family eligible for the Best Beginnings Scholarship would pay only $10 per month per child. Additionally, it made more families qualify for the scholarship by bumping up the income threshold to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line. In turn, this lent childcare providers more stability when working with Best Beginnings families, and it incentivized them to accept the scholarship.
About 6,620 kids benefitted from the Best Beginnings Scholarship in 2022.
Montana’s health department recently announced it would be ending this level of financial support starting in the new year. According to reporting from the Helena Independent Record, a department spokesperson said all the federal COVID-19 relief money has been spent so the state can no longer fund this deeply discounted co-pay. The state used more than $11 million in pandemic aid to fund the program so that more families could pay only $10 each month.
Eligibility for Best Beginnings will once again be capped at families earning household incomes up to 150% of the Federal Poverty Line – down from the pandemic threshold of 185% – which means some people will lose the scholarship altogether. The state will also reinstitute the sliding scale policy, so families will no longer pay a flat copay of $10, and some might see their costs jump hundreds of dollars.
Multiple childcare providers we are in touch with here in Missoula told us that many families have only recently received notice that their monthly copayments will soon skyrocket. Some haven’t received any notice yet. For refugee parents, understanding the bureaucratic and technical letters sent by mail in English – often their second, third or even fourth language – can be very difficult.
Another significant change impacts attendance requirements.
Prior to the pandemic, the state would not reimburse providers for the days a child on the Best Beginnings Scholarship didn’t attend care. Providers bill the state’s health department at the end of every month, which meant that sometimes how much reimbursement a facility would get from the state for Best Beginnings couldn’t necessarily be planned ahead of time since it depended on attendance. By comparison, most non-scholarship families pay an up-front cost at the start of every month regardless of attendance, which means childcare providers can count on those dollars for budgeting purposes.
As part of the COVID-19 relief, the state agreed to pay providers no matter how many days a child attended, giving childcare facilities peace of mind around how much money they would be bringing in when enrolling families using the Best Beginnings program – the same way they would families paying full price on their own.
With the changes in January, the state will only pay providers in full if a child attends at least 85% of their authorized time, usually 22 days per month. That means if a child misses more than four days, a scholarship family would have to pay the provider. Absences for illness, such as a potential COVID-19 case, are not excused.
This modification will impact providers – possibly making them less incentivized to accept Best Beginnings families in the name of stability – as well as families who might find themselves on the hook for more than their already-increased monthly copay if their child can’t attend the childcare facility for the minimum number of days for whatever reason.
What does this mean for the community?
Changes to Best Beginnings will impact many of the refugee and immigrant families that we work with at Soft Landing Missoula. Some have arrived in Montana since the changes went into effect last year, and others have had kids enter the childcare system during that time. That means that many have never had to pay costs higher than $10 each month, and this could throw a significant wrench into their finances.
The same could be said for all community members who rely on the Best Beginnings Scholarship to be able to afford childcare. On average, childcare for two children in Montana can use up to 25% of a family’s annual income. For context, the federal health department has said the standard for affordability should be 7% of annual household income.
What’s particularly concerning for families is the late notice of these changes, which fails to give many families the chance to figure out how they will cope with higher costs as well as denies childcare providers the opportunity to adjust their own financial planning accordingly.
Facilities in Missoula such as Little Twigs and Amber’s Angels employ refugee women as child care providers. Those same women benefit from the Best Beginnings Scholarship in order to afford to have their own children at the facilities.
At this point, it appears the state health department will move forward with enacting these changes in January. However, the State Legislature – which begins its next session on January 2nd – will be debating a budget that will impact a host of state services and support, including the cost of childcare. If you’re hoping to learn more about child care affordability, we encourage you to follow what’s happening in Helena with these budget negotiations and reach out to your local state lawmakers, should you feel compelled to do so.