In 2015, a 2-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi drowned while trying to reach Greece, as did his mother Rehan and his older brother, Galip. Images of his body, which had washed ashore at the Turkish resort of Bodrum, circulated throughout the news and social media, sparking outrage, despair, and, in many corners of the world, including ours, action. After seeing the haunting image of Alan’s body lying alone on a beach and reflecting on the global refugee crisis that has only grown since 2015, a group of women in a Missoula book club sought to make a difference. Soft Landing Missoula was born. The small organization grew, held community meetings, got key stakeholders, such as Missoula County Public Schools, on board, and contacted refugee resettlement organizations throughout the U.S. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which had resettled Hmong refugees in Missoula from the 1970s to the early 1990s, responded to their call. Starting in August of 2016, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea began to call Missoula home. Almost three years later, over 300 refugees have relocated to Missoula through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program and the IRC, and also continue to receive support from Soft Landing Missoula.
Now, another image haunts us, one reflective of the asylum crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico. This image, eerily familiar, has circulated through the media and social media worlds. A father and his 23-month-old daughter lay dead, having drowned in the Rio Grande River. Like Alan’s family trying to reach Greece while escaping the civil war in Syria, Oscar Alberto Martinez and his daughter, Valeria, died trying to seek asylum in the U.S. while Tania Avalos, Oscar’s wife and Valeria’s mother, watched helplessly from the shore.
The parallels are striking. Between 1993 and 2018, over 34,000 asylum seekers died trying to cross the Mediterranean, with the majority of those deaths occurring between 2014 and 2018. They often crossed from Libya, Turkey and other countries, hoping to make it to a European Union country in order to seek asylum. Today, growing numbers of migrants from Central American countries such as El Salvador are seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border with Mexico, hoping to escape violence and poverty. Whereas the U.S. was, until 2018, the worldwide leader in third-country refugee resettlement, these asylum seekers are coming at a time when the U.S. is cutting the number of official refugees that it accepts while also reducing the number of asylum seekers entering the country. The administration’s increasingly restrictive policies are contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis at the southern U.S. border, and abroad. As a nation, we have successfully resettled over 3.5 million refugees since the formal resettlement program began in the late 1970’s. We can and should continue to be a global leader in this humanitarian effort.
Recently, Soft Landing Missoula, an organization created to assist refugees, has expanded its written mission to include other kinds of immigrants, including asylum seekers. While we have been serving all who come to us through our regular programming these last almost 4 years, including other immigrants and those seeking asylum, we feel at this time it is especially important to declare this out loud. Those seeking asylum in the U.S., including those at the U.S. border, are, in many instances, fleeing similar circumstances to those who have sought and obtained refugee status here. Their countries of origin, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria, and Eritrea, might be an ocean and continents away, but the circumstances of their departure are often very much alike.
Thus, SLM will begin to include a section in subsequent newsletters to highlight the plight of asylum seekers at the U.S. border and the people trying to do something about it. We hope to humanize the crisis and spark the kind of commitment to action that created this organization in the first place and resulted in the resettlement of over 300 refugees in Missoula. We at Soft Landing Missoula believe that Oscar and his young daughter, Valeria, deserved a chance at a better life. They made a dangerous trek hoping for that chance and their lives ended as a result, just like that of Alan, his brother, and his mother. These children and their families remind us of what is at stake in the global refugee crisis with 70 million people and counting displaced from their homes worldwide – people like Oscar, Valeria, Alan, Rehan, and Galip. People like the seven children seeking asylum who have died after being taken into U.S. custody. People whose lives should not end face down in a river or in a sea. This conviction is at the heart of Soft Landing Missoula’s mission and it is the belief that started the movement for the most recent chapter of refugee resettlement in Missoula.
Please join us in supporting and advocating for fair and humane treatment for asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border. To learn more and to contribute your time and resources, please see the following:
Call/Email/Visit our Members of Congress OFTEN! Tell them you oppose the separation of migrant children from family members and that holding asylum seekers in concentration camps is inhumane, unjust and a violation of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Demand inspection of detention centers and the release of children and families. Let them know that you would like to see an INCREASE in refugees and people seeking asylum being allowed legal entry to the US. The Congressional Switchboard is: 202-224-3121.
Reach out to local groups working on immigrants’ rights like: Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, National Lawyers Guild Chapters, Montanans for Immigrant Justice, Billings Sanctuary Rising, Montana ACLU, Montana Human Rights Network, and the International Rescue Committee.
Contribute to organizations on the front lines of assistance like: El Otro Lado, Together Rising, United We Dream, RAICES, Angry Tias y Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, KIND – Kids in Need of Defense, The Florence Project, Make the Road, La Union del Pueblo Unido, Annunciation House, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and the Tucson monastery shelter, No More Deaths. Check out Miles for Migrants to donate frequent flier miles to reunite families.
Thank you for joining your voice with ours to protect and support families seeking safety and opportunity.
In love and gratitude,
Soft Landing Missoula Board of Directors,
Gillian Glaes, Alysha Goheen, Bria Morgan, Katie Klietz, Brian Fitzgerald, Clem Work, Rev. Daniel Disch, Kelsey Stamm Jimenez.