It’s that time again! Camp Paxson 2022.

Summer is on its last legs. Nights are becoming cooler. Days are a little shorter. And the first day of classes in Missoula County Public Schools is rapidly approaching.

Every year, this changing of seasons is bittersweet for us at Soft Landing Missoula. On one hand, it means the return of after-school tutoring and the chance to see more families regularly walk through the doors at the Community Center. On the other hand, it means the conclusion of our long lineup of summer activities for the youth program (rafting, hiking, trail runs!) and a farewell to many volunteers, interns and AmeriCorp members who do so much great work during the season.

But what we all love about summer’s end is our annual youth trip to Camp Paxson near Seeley Lake!

This year, around two dozen middle- and high-schoolers made the trip to one of Western Montana’s most historic sites. Camp Paxson sits on a 15-acre peninsula that was cared for by the Salish, Blackfeet and Crow tribes for hundreds of years prior to European colonization. Though the land and its stewards far predate the construction of the present day buildings, the cabins and other structures were built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Camp Paxson began as a camp for the Boy Scouts of America, and a couple years later, it became a school for smokejumpers for the United States Forest Service.

Today, it’s leased by a nonprofit to all kinds of organizations and groups to host gatherings, and here at Soft Landing Missoula, we are lucky enough to use the space for three days and two nights as our bookend to summer every year!

The highlight of the weekend was certainly all the swimming. Kids spent hours splashing, jumping off the dock and canoeing! Those who didn’t swim – or at least not as much – enjoyed sand volleyball and games of soccer, and we had an afternoon of crafts including tie-dye and beading.

Though kids spent most of the day doing a variety of activities, everyone came together over meals. We cozied up to the long, wooden tables in the dining hall and shared traditional dishes from some of the cultures represented by campers such as Congolese plantains for breakfast and Syrian lentils and rice for dinner. We had almost as much fun cooking this food as we did eating it! The kitchen turned into a bonafide dance party.

It wouldn’t be summer without a proverbial gathering around the campfire. And while fire restrictions meant we had to forego the actual flames, we did conclude the weekend all together for a talent show. Kids choreographed dances and shared music from their home countries, and we passed along traditional campfire snacks with a twist: a cake celebrating Soft Landing’s three summer Americorp members who made this summer so special – Rachel, Matthew and Lydia!

As the sun set on our final night at Camp Paxson and on the summer overall, we paused for a moment of gratitude – for the amazing kids and their families we get to learn from every day; for the special moments shared in beautiful places; and for all the people in this community who help to make it feel like home for all of us.

Girls Empowerment Trip to Lake Inez 2022

Summer has been a whirlwind for the youth program at Soft Landing Missoula.

Most recently, we wrapped up our annual overnight trip for girls, a chance for young women in the youth program to feel comfortable and empowered in a space of their own.

Eight girls spent three days and two nights at Lake Inez just north of Missoula. The trip had all the makings of a typical and awesome summer outing in Montana: a hike to Holland Falls, river dips and time spent on the lake. But it was so much more than that.

Girls enjoyed a lot of time and opportunity to share with one another — their culture, their languages, their foods and their experiences in Missoula. Though many of them are frequent participants at youth events, they didn’t know one another all that well since it’s not uncommon for teenagers to stick with the people they already consider friends at the regular programming. Being in a small group opened the door for new relationships.

“It really was an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and for new friendships to begin,” said Natalia Boise, who helps to organize Soft Landing Missoula’s youth program. “These intimate settings where we get to take kids in smaller groups is where those start to happen. That’s really cool to see.”

One of the ways this kind of exchange was facilitated was through a musical chairs-style game. While music played, people would move in a circle, and when the music stopped, whoever ended up in the designated “hot seat” would answer a number of questions about herself from the group.

Girls said this was one of their favorite parts of the weekend because they got to learn so much about one another that they didn’t know prior.

The weekend was also a testament to the power of food as a way to build cultural bridges.

Rather than offer more quintessential “American” meals for the lake trip, youth program organizers decided to give girls the responsibility of picking a dinner recipe from their own households, doing the grocery shopping and preparing the meal for the group on different nights.

Sitting down at a table over meals sparked a lot of conversation about peoples’ different backgrounds and culinary traditions. Some girls even asked for recipes to be shared so they could pass it along to their parents to cook back home! This approach was a new one for these overnight trips, but it’s one that youth program leaders said they hope to incorporate more often since it created such excitement, enjoyment and open exchange about different cultures.

Through all of this bonding and fun in the outdoors and kitchen, girls were also encouraged to develop new empowerment and life skills. For example, they were given a financial grocery budget and tasked with going to the supermarket to shop for the group. They quickly learned how quickly the tab can run up if you go through those aisles without a plan!

Additionally, they visited the Museum of Mountain Flying on their way out of town from Missoula where they got a tour from a female pilot and checked out the inside of firefighting planes. Who knows, maybe we now have a future pilot in our midst!

Finally, throughout the weekend, the girls were given the comfort and privacy of a safe space, one where they could ask hard questions, talk about intimate topics and feel safe speaking without judgment or some of the co-ed dynamics that can give any high schooler pause.

They did that at the dinner table and during activities, but they also participated in relationship-building and reflection exercises that spurred these kinds of conversations. For example, each girl completed a vision board – they cut our pictures from magazines and pasted them onto a poster board to illustrate their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future.

“It was really important to have that kind of space for them to connect and talk about their experiences,” Natalia said. “There’s a lot of value in having a space set aside for girls, and girls empowerment is really important regardless of the culture.”

Big thanks goes out to Natalia and two Americorp team members, Rachel and Ada from Soft Landing Missoula and the International Rescue Committee, respectively, for coordinating and chaperoning the trip. We also want to thank Jennifer Elison who so graciously allowed us to use her cabin for the weekend and gave the girls a fantastic place to lay their heads after long days out on the lake!

World Refugee Day 2022

“This is the best day of my year. I wish we could have a World Refugee Day party everyday.”

Afghan father

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a global commemoration established by the United Nations to celebrate the experience of refugees across the world and a time to honor the joy, experiences and resilience of this incredible community. Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we host an annual weekend gathering to commemorate the day centered around what we consider three universal languages: food, music and soccer.

It’s our favorite day of the year because we get the chance to bring together all kinds of amazing humans – refugees and immigrants who call Missoula home, staff members and their families, volunteers, community partners, and many more! This year’s event was no different, but it might have been even more exciting because it was the first World Refugee Day celebration in three years that wasn’t significantly compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were truly overjoyed to spend the day with families and friends – those we’ve known for years and those newer arrivals we’ve only recently met. This year’s event swelled to roughly 250 people, and it was one heck of a party!

The afternoon began with pick-up soccer games at Fort Missoula, followed by food and a musical performance by Djebe Bara, a community drum and dance group led by Oumar Keita, originally from Guinea. Throughout the day, people participated in a craft project in which they could pin their journey to Missoula on a large wooden map using safety pins and string. Music and dancing lingered into the evening and people from different countries mixed it up on the drums and the dance floor.

As is the case with so much of the work we do at Soft Landing, the World Refugee Day celebration would not have been possible without the generous support of community partners. The International Rescue Committee provided food, the Missoula Alliance Church helped with transportation, the City of Missoula and its Police and Fire Departments offered both outreach and support (the fire truck was a huge hit with kids and adults alike!), and a number of local service providers – including Buckle Up Montana, Let’s Move Missoula, and Moving Mountains – tabled at the event to connect with attendees about their offerings within the community.

Below are a few reflections from those who attended that reflect the joyful spirit of the event!

“The skies threatened and the wind blew cold, but our community was undeterred. Soccer was played! Food was eaten, including a special blend of ice cream created in collaboration with the Big Dipper. People traced their journeys to Missoula on a huge multicolored map. And at the end of the night, our very own Chef Oumar and his drum and dance band, Djebe Bara, played. Kids free-ranged all over the dance floor. Then several Congolese women shimmied out. A few minutes later, a line of Afghan men danced onto the floor. Those drum beats were irresistible! I sat and held my daughter as she dripped ice cream all over me and thought about all that these folks had to get through to arrive at this moment in Missoula MT, dancing together under the mountains.”

Beth Baker, United We Eat Program Manager

“We gathered the more than 50 soccer players into a big circle to welcome them and lay a few ground rules before breaking into teams. We decided to count off by 4’s in order to make the 4 teams, which it turns out is a distinctly American thing to do. The players fumbled and giggled their way through counting by 4s, helping confused neighbors remember their numbers. By the time we got around the circle, everyone was laughing. As teams broke off and handshakes and high fives were given with new teammates, I realized we had more than 10 different countries of origin represented on the field. Once on the field, all those differences melted away into the common language of soccer.”

Molly Cottrell, Deputy Director of Soft Landing Missoula

“World Refugee Day is good because you get to see people your same color. Having many people around who are the same as me makes me feel less alone.”

Congolese middle-schooler

“My favorite moment was when a Congolese man was playing music from his country and then all the people from different countries started dancing. This made me feel the merging of cultures together and that everyone is welcome.”

Rozan Shbib, United We Eat Kitchen Assistant

“I loved it when a young Afghan man got to take a turn on the drums. He looked like he was levitating. He had the biggest smile on his face. It was awesome.”

Maria, Soft Landing Missoula Donor Engagement and Impact Director

“There are many things I like about this day. I get to interact with people from other cultures. I see their clothing, their food.”

Afghan woman and United We Eat chef

“I loved it when Paul Mwingwa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo gave a welcome to the crowd, beginning with a greeting of “hello” in everyone’s native language.”

Mary Poole, Executive Director of Soft Landing Missoula

What is Title 42, and how does it impact people hoping to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border?

The southern border of the United States has been closed to most asylum seekers for over two years thanks to a fairly obscure provision in federal law known as Title 42. Then-President Donald Trump invoked the measure and tightened restrictions on the border in March 2020 citing public health concerns around the transmission of COVID-19. 

On April 1 of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that closure of the border was not necessary to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19, and President Joe Biden issued an order to roll back Title 42 by May 23. 

Whether the border will actually reopen to asylum seekers remains unclear as Title 42 has become the latest political football in the broader immigration policy debate. 

Access to the opportunity to claim asylum is an internationally recognized, legal path of immigration laid out by the United Nations and enshrined in United States federal law. As such, advocacy organizations like  the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) call Title 42 a “brutal policy” that “strips people at the border of the right to seek asylum.”

Lawmakers in support of continuing Title 42, including Montana Senator Jon Tester and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, say it is necessary to prevent a massive influx in the number of people crossing the border that would overwhelm the already-stretched-thin immigration system. 

Despite these projections, Title 42 was designed as a public health measure, not as a tool for immigration policy, so its continued implementation around the border has generated controversy. With that, you’ve probably seen Title 42 popping up in headlines lately, so we wanted to cut through the noise and give you the rundown. 

What is Title 42?  

Title 42 was established in 1944 as part of the Public Health Service Act, giving the federal government a slew of powers to deal with international and national health problems. For example, it funded research grants for what was, at the time, one of the most frightening diseases in the world – tuberculosis – and created the National Cancer Institute. 

Now, it’s back in the news for its surprising – and confusing – role it’s playing in national immigration policy. 

Since Title 42 was invoked in March 2020, Customers and Border Protection has counted more than 1.7 million expulsions from people trying to cross the southern border. Many of these crossings represent people who, in normal times, would have been admitted into the United States while waiting for their asylum cases to be evaluated. (It’s important to note that this number does not reflect 1.7 million unique people, as it’s not uncommon for someone to try to cross more than once.) 

The impact of Title 42 has been felt most acutely by people seeking asylum within the United States at the southern border. Unlike refugees, who gain permission to enter the U.S. through a process that takes place abroad, asylum seekers are legally allowed to petition the country once they are inside of it. Title 42 forces vulnerable families to wait in crowded, often dangerous conditions rife with extortion and human trafficking in Mexico with few resources. 

Immigration officials say that the ability to regulate who comes and goes into the country this way has been essential in maintaining a manageable flow of people across the border.

Should Title 42 be lifted, there would be a significant surge in the number of people that would overwhelm everyone from law enforcement officials to the courts and lawyers responsible for processing asylum applications. The Department of Homeland Security estimates the number of people crossing the border could jump from 8,000 daily to 18,000. 

The Department of Homeland Security has also noted that it could mean more smugglers slip through the cracks bringing drugs or other contraband across the border. 

Does Title 42 apply to everyone at the border? 

Not all asylum seekers have been treated equally under the provision.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many Ukrainians started flying to the United States’ border with Mexico to escape the war unfolding in their home country. There, they encountered tens of thousands of people fleeing persecution and violence in Haiti, Cameroon and Central American countries who were unable to cross due to Title 42. They also encountered Russian and Belarussians hoping to enter and seek asylum. 

However, it was only Ukrainians who were able to be exempted from the public health order and seek asylum without much issue. According to Customs and Border Protection, immigration officials encountered 272 Ukrainians at the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2022. Only one was expelled under Title 42. Meanwhile, 69% of Guatemalans, 68% of Hondurans and 64% of El Savadorans were expelled under the same Title 42 provision, according to Time. 

“This heightened sense of responsibility, while commendable, is noticeably different from what Americans usually do when there is a conflict where you have millions of refugees,” Sahar Aziz, professor of law at Rutgers University, said to Time Magazine. 

 What’s next? 

The political winds have shifted on Title 42 since two years ago when it was first invoked. Fewer Democrats are reportedly in favor of rolling it back now, particularly given proximity to midterm elections this fall when immigration could impact voting behaviors. 

Congress has the authority to delay lifting Title 42. To date, that action has been included as part of a larger $10 billion COVID-19 federal relief bill. A growing number of lawmakers say they will vote against the aid package if it includes the repeal of Title 42, so they are pushing Congressional leadership to hold a separate vote on the immigration policy as a standalone. 

There seems to be growing traction for this approach. 

Tester, one of Montana’s two senators, has signed on to bipartisan legislation that would delay lifting the migration restrictions and requires the presidential administration to present a plan for how to address the likely surge in border crossings.

“I’m also going to fight tooth and nail to make sure that we address staffing shortages at Customs and Border Patrol and to ensure that agents from the northern border won’t be frequently reassigned to handle any influx of migrants caused by the change in policy,” Tester said in a statement.  

At the same time, a federal judge is evaluating a lawsuit brought by more than 20 state attorneys general, including Knudsen representing Montana, that would block the White House from rescinding the Title 42 order. The District Court judge has promised to issue a ruling on whether to allow a nationwide injunction on Title 42’s repeal by May 23, the day it is otherwise set to expire. 

Though Soft Landing doesn’t currently work with anyone directly impacted by Title 42 and its current interpretation, we still feel it is essential that we do the hard work of informing ourselves. You can never fully understand the totality of the experiences someone holds within a community, and, in general, we see firsthand how borders impact so many people. This desire to inform ourselves and our community is particularly important when it comes to issues like Title 42, one that is exceedingly complicated where Montana lawmakers are playing an active role in the conversation.

Montana’s driver’s education materials now available in three more languages

Imagine moving to a new country. You arrive after an arduous journey. You don’t speak the language, you don’t have many friends nearby and you don’t know your way around town. You’d love to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy to pick up some essentials for your family, but your driver’s license from home no longer applies, so you’re left to sort out how to use the public transit system or pay for a taxi. 

Once you have secured a job and placed your kids in school or daycare, the questions continue to mount: How do you get your children where they need to be? Does the bus get you to work on time? What if your child wants to participate in an after-school activity? Doing it all without the ability to drive is like trying to tackle an unsolvable puzzle. 

This is the reality for many refugee and immigrant families when they first arrive in Missoula. 

The easy answer would be to apply for a driver’s license. There’s just one catch: many have limited English skills when they arrive, and driver’s education materials have historically not been available in their first languages. Learning the many nuances of road rules in this country is hard enough as a native English speaker who grew up here. Doing it with limited language skills is nearly impossible. 

Getting a license when moving from another state is easy. Show a valid driver’s license from elsewhere, prove local residency and you’re ready to hit the road as a Treasure State driver. The same isn’t true for people with valid licenses from other countries. They must, understandably, go through the entire driver’s education process to orient around rules of the road in the United States, including a written and driving test. 

For years, DMVs across the state only offered the Montana Driver Manual – basically the textbook for driver’s education – in English and Spanish. Soft Landing staff members and volunteers found workarounds. They printed translated versions from other states and modified discrepancies with local law; manually translated entire workbooks using online translation tools and the support of some clients; and paid people to translate the roughly 120 practice test questions into multiple languages. 

It was labor intensive and time consuming, and largely led by one amazing volunteer named Loren Pinski. 

But thanks to the hard work of Soft Landing Missoula staff and volunteers and collaborative partnership with the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles and Montana Language Services, a professional translation and interpreter service, the state’s driver’s education program is now far more accessible for English learners across the state of Montana. 

As of March 2022, people who speak Dari, Swahili or Arabic as their first language can now find professionally translated Montana Driver Manuals on the DMV website.

This is a huge deal! 

Being able to drive a car unlocks an entire world of opportunity for new Missoulians. It opens up job opportunities, allows promotes participation in social events, allows freedom of movement for their children and themselves and supports self-empowerment. 

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin” for any program that receives federal funding. The provision goes even further to say that people with “limited English proficiency must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate” in these programs. 

When Soft Landing and other community partners brought these concerns to the state, the Department of Motor Vehicles was quick to acknowledge it needed to provide additional support for new arrivals and immigrants, and it was quick to make the change statewide. 

Together, we all moved the needle on services provided by the state of Montana. 

There is still some room for improvement. Though people can study and prepare in their native language, they still must take the test in English with the help of a coordinator from the DMV and a translator in the room. This requires a great deal of logistical coordination, and it is still difficult for a student to go through the testing process. 

But with the translated materials, things are still significantly easier. Over 20 people have received their driver’s licenses this year and that number continues to grow as people express interest in going through the tutoring and application process. 

Huge kudos to Loren Pinski, our outstanding volunteer who has become the face of our driver’s education program, Soft Landing Missoula staff such as Greta Bates who have long advocated for this change and all the stakeholders in the community who made this possible including the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles and Montana Language Services.

Ramadan: More than just fasting

Right now, many of the world’s two billion Muslims are observing Ramadan, one of the most sacred times of the year in Islam. The month-long holiday marks the period when Muslims believe Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. 

It starts on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which changes by roughly 11 days every year. For 2022, Ramadan began on Friday April 1 and will end on Sunday May 1. 

Many people in Missoula’s immigrant and refugee community celebrate this holiday, which has allowed us at Soft Landing a small window into its beauty, symbolism, and festivities. 

You’ve likely heard about the fasting that happens during Ramadan – and we will talk about that shortly – but, first, we want to share a little bit more about the lesser known parts of the holiday. 

The holiday sometimes gets the reputation as an austere, solemn time of sacrifice and discipline.

But Ramadan is actually a chance for people to experience joy, celebration and gratitude. 

Every night, people gather with friends, family and loved ones to break the fast after sunset with an Iftar gathering. They begin with water and dates – a traditional way to ease your stomach back into digestion – before some people participate in evening prayer. Afterwards, it’s time to eat! 

As a way to welcome the newest Syrian families in Missoula, Soft Landing hosted an Iftar dinner for the Arab families in Missoula with whom we work. The evening was filled with laughter, good conversation and, of course, delicious food prepared by a Syrian chef in town. This dinner, enjoyed after sundown, was a wonderful reflection of how Ramadan is intended to bring people together, strengthen ties between Muslims across the world and show thankfulness for loved ones and life. 

Those values are on display perhaps no more greatly than when Ramadan comes to a close. Muslims celebrate with three days of social gatherings, prayer and food called Eid al-Fitr. The word “eid” in Arabic literally translates to feast, and it marks the culmination of this season and the strength and perseverance required to fast for one month. 

In Muslim countries, Eid al-Fitr is reminiscent of Christmas in the United States. People decorate their homes with lanterns and other decorations, invite huge groups of family and friends over to their house for parties and head to shopping malls to buy gifts to exchange. 

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr are also seasons of tremendous generosity. Many Muslims do most of their giving during this time, they pay their annual zakat, or donations to the Mosque, and they provide extra charity to the poor so nobody misses the celebration. During the holiday, some of the Muslim families we work with bring donations to our office for those in need and inquire about other ways they can help us in our work to welcome new neighbors.

So, while fasting is an important part of Ramadan, it’s certainly not all of it. If you’re still curious about how fasting works, here’s the rundown: 

People who celebrate Ramadan fast from sunrise to sunset everyday for the whole month, forgoing all food and water. Many people start fasting at a young age – right around puberty – and continue for most of their lives. Missoulians who celebrate Ramadan have told us that it’s difficult for the first 10 days, but after that the body and mind adjust and it becomes easier to stay the course. 

According to Islam, fasting serves as an important reminder of humankind’s dependence on Allah, instills compassion for those in poverty who face hunger and thirst often and removes mundane distractions to create space for devotion to and study of the faith. 

It could be that many of you in Missoula work, attend school or interact in other ways with people fasting during Ramadan. We can all be mindful that while they are going about their typical schedules, they may be more fatigued and need to take breaks or they could be susceptible to dizzy spells. To be particularly considerate, you can avoid eating a delicious lunch right in front of them at the office or on Zoom and give them the traditional greeting of “Ramadan Mubarak!” to let them know you are supporting their journey. 

Periods of sacrifice are shared across faith traditions around this time of year.

Many Christians celebrate Lent, a 40-day period in the Spring where people give up certain habits, foods or activities in order to prepare themselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter, one of the holiest days of the year in the Bible. 

In the Jewish faith, Passover lasts for eight days, usually in March or April, to commemorate the exodus of Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Jews who celebrate this holiday are supposed to avoid all bread, eating only matzah, made of unleavened flour and water, representing the bondage of enslavement.  

Like Judaism and Christianity do with their foremost religious holidays, Islam’s Ramadan is not only about deprivation or strict rules. Rather, it’s a shared experience that builds solidarity, celebrates gratitude and unites people in their faith.

As one writer from Vox says, “most Muslims actually look forward to Ramadan and are a little sad when it’s over. There’s just something really special about knowing that tens of millions of your fellow Muslims around the world are experiencing the same hunger pangs, dry  mouth and dizzy spells that you are, and that we’re all in it together.” 

The U.S. could welcome 100,000 Ukrainians. What does that mean for Missoula?

Nearly four million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, crossing into neighboring countries, since Russia invaded in February. Even more have been internally displaced within Ukraine. 

What has unfolded has been nothing short of a tragedy. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over two million of these individuals have fled to Poland with hundreds of thousands currently displaced in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Hungary and other surrounding countries.

The vast majority of those fleeing are women and children. We’ve all seen painful images of mothers, babies and kids sleeping on makeshift beds, bundled in winter coats carrying suitcases stuffed with whatever belongings they could fit and waiting in outdoor lines for hot meals. 

Many of us have experienced moments of feeling helpless as this tragedy unfolds, searching for small, but meaningful ways to support Ukrainians. Soft Landing and other Missoula community partners recently came together to raise close to $20,000 for World Central Kitchen, an organization providing hot meals for displaced families in the region. 

U.S. to accept 100,000 Ukrainians 

President Joe Biden recently announced the United States would accept 100,000 Ukrainians and other displaced people fleeing the conflict, in an effort to relieve pressure on European countries straining under the massive influx in people.

This will include not only refugees designated for resettlement, but also people under a number of different legal pathways, ranging from travel and student visas, to possibly even humanitarian parole- a status that grants temporary approval to people fleeing wartime crisis to live and work in the United States. We recently saw this status used to expedite the arrival of tens of thousands of Afghans after the fall of Kabul last August. 

Additionally, the Biden administration already granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians currently inside the United States whose visas might expire. They will be allowed to work and live in this country legally for up to 18 months.

What does this mean for Missoula?

Many in Missoula have called Soft Landing asking how to help, or whether we know if/when Ukrainians might arrive here. We are so grateful and heartened by the outpouring of support, and while we too are eager to help, we should remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. 

While we don’t have many details or a timeline right now, including how this will pertain to Missoula, what we do know is that we are likely to receive Ukrainian families at some point. As shown with the success of resettlement in Missoula over the last 5 years and its selection as a site to receive Afghan evacuees, our city has proven itself to be a welcoming place for refugees to land. 

We also know that things can change fast. It could be weeks before we know more, or it could be days. Here at Soft Landing, we will be diligent in following updates and do our best to keep ourselves, and you, informed as to how to help when the time comes.

White House officials have said priority will be given to people with family in the United States. We know there are some Missoula residents with family ties in Ukraine and the surrounding region. Locally, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Missoula will field any resettlement requests and support any new arrivals to Missoula should they occur. Soft Landing and other community partners will also be here to lend a hand, as we do with folks arriving as refugees from any other country. 

Global perspective 

The 100,000 Ukrainians the United States aspires to welcome over the next year and a half mirrors the number of Afghans who were granted entry on the heels of the military’s departure from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover less than a year ago.

The fast-paced and urgent exit from Afghanistan  caused the entire refugee resettlement process for people from other countries to grind to a halt as the federal government focused its resources on getting Afghans out. While this speedy evacuation was essential, this meant that many families from other war torn areas from around the world were left in further limbo as they awaited a slowed resettlement system.

According to the International Rescue Committee, this system-wide slow down shouldn’t happen again as the United States welcomes Ukrainians, in part because the refugee resettlement system has had a chance to begin to rebuild after four years of decreased capacity in the previous administration. Also, the process to welcome Ukrainians to the United States is likely to move at a slower pace because many people fleeing hold the hope that they will be able to return at some point should the invasion end and they want to stay closer to home.

The federal government has also said it will not airlift any evacuees from Ukraine to the United States, as we did in Afghanistan. With people being accepted under so many statuses, not just as refugees, there are still many questions about how this will all play out.

The crisis in Ukraine has undoubtedly resulted in mass suffering of innocent people. And while it’s been incredible to see the world rally around these brave individuals in so much need, as it did around Afghan evacuees as well, here at Soft Landing Missoula, we are intimately aware that the same welcome must be extended to other people facing similar crises. 

When nearly 1.3 million people from the Middle East and Africa were displaced in 2015 against the backdrop of a gruesome war in Syria, many countries were reluctant to accept them. Tens of thousands of people have been stuck for months seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, unable to return home where they escaped violent crime, drug cartels and persecution. Meanwhile, many Ukrainians and Russians have arrived at this same border over the last few months and have been allowed to cross into the United States and process their asylum claims from within the country. And then there’s the Tigray Region in Ethiopia, where war has ravaged the region, killing thousands and leaving millions of people at risk of starvation, including friends and family members of Eritreans right here in our own city,  yet it barely makes headlines. 

In a moment when the world’s eyes are once again fixed on refugees and war-related displacement, we want to reiterate our firm belief that all people enduring violence and persecution are worthy of the support and welcome we’ve rightfully offered up to the Ukrainians. 

——————————————————————————————————————————–

We know these conversations involve a lot of jargon. Here’s a refresher on the key terms you need to know about refugees and other pathways of entry into the United States. 

GLOSSARY 

Refugee: An internationally protected person who has been forced to flee his or her country, crossing the border into another one because of persecution, war or violence. This person must have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. A refugee must register with the United Nations in the first country of arrival, pass a “credible fear” interview based on these categories, and then go through an extensive application for refugee resettlement before being approved to resettle to a third country, such as the United States. Less than one percent of the world’s most vulnerable refugees will be given this chance. The large majority of the world’s refugees remain in limbo in neighboring countries for years, if not decades.

Refugee resettlement: This is the process by which someone who applies for and is granted refugee status gets placed in a third country, usually due to a heightened level of vulnerability or family reunification. Here in Missoula, refugee resettlement is run through the International Rescue Committee and supported by other community partners such as Soft Landing Missoula. When a refugee is resettled, he or she receives permanent status to stay in the United States with a five-year path to citizenship. 

Asylum-seeker: A person who has fled his or her home country and seeks protection from persecution, but has not yet been granted the protected status of a refugee. People apply for asylum from within the country they have fled to and hope to remain in or at a port of entry. Asylum is a legal, internationally recognized law under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and was later brought into domestic US law with the refugee Act of 1980. Someone granted asylum gains the same permanent status as a refugee and eventually has the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. 

Humanitarian parole: A category of status given by the federal government to a person who must enter the United States quickly based on urgent humanitarian reasons. Someone with humanitarian parole is allowed to be in the country temporarily, but then must go through the normal asylum application process. Without the asylum application, humanitarian parole does not include a path to permanent residency on its own. 

Temporary Protected Status: The secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent its nationals from returning safely. This applies to people from certain countries, or parts of countries, that are already in the United States.

Internally displaced person: Someone who has fled their home but has not left the borders of his or her own country. An internally displaced person is usually forced out of the primary residence due to war or other forms of oppression, often trapped within conflict zones. Most displaced persons worldwide are internally displaced.

Soft Landing Supports the Afghan Adjustment Act

When tens of thousands of Afghan families were forced to leave their homes and their lives behind last year, Missoula opened its arms to welcome them. Here at Soft Landing, we have had the immense privilege of working alongside partners to help them navigate this extraordinarily difficult transition. 

Over the last six months, Afghan families have bravely embraced new lives in Missoula.

They have enrolled in schools and started new jobs; started to learn English and passed driver’s education classes; and generously shared their culture through cooking classes, celebrations and youth programs. In just a short time, they have become part of the Missoula community. 

And they have taken these tremendous strides without any certainty around whether they will be allowed to stay in this country for longer than their current temporary status allows. Lacking that certainty makes it incredibly difficult to put down roots – but in yet another display of resilience, they have tried. 

All this progress, all this hard work on the part of Afghans to create a new future for themselves could be jeopardized if federal lawmakers don’t take action to guarantee them a path to permanent residency in the United States. 

That’s why we are joining our local and national partners in calling on Congress to introduce and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. 

Who would be affected by the Afghan Adjustment Act? 

At least 36,433 Afghan evacuees who have already been resettled in the United States or will soon arrive, do not have a path to permanent residency, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security presented to Congress. That’s more than 40 percent of the tens of thousands of Afghans who were airlifted from the country as part of the United States evacuation operation.  

Some have relatives who already secured U.S. citizenship. Many were eligible for refugee status or special immigrant visas – a program that gives green cards to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government abroad as translators, fixers or in other capacities – but had to evacuate before they could apply or risk persecution from the Taliban. Others are family members of people with these special immigrant visas or refugee status, and they too would likely have been in danger from the Taliban. 

These vulnerable people, many of whom courageously put their own wellbeing at risk by working for our nation’s government while war ravaged their home country, are in legal limbo. They were admitted to the country under a special condition granted by the Department of Homeland Security called humanitarian parole, which allows them to be here for just two years before the status expires. 

Once it expires, though, they have no path to permanent residency. Congress has the power to change that, but has taken no steps to do so. 

What is the Afghan Adjustment Act, and has it been done before? 

Modeled after similar legislation crafted for Cubans, Iraqis and people from Southeast Asia, all fleeing dangerous situations, the Afghan Adjustment Act would allow those who arrived in the United States on humanitarian parole to apply for permanent status after one year. 

Legislation like this would prevent them from having to apply for asylum, which would allow them to remain safely in this country. But applying for asylum requires navigating a system facing a backlog of more than 400,000 applications and a roster of attorneys not nearly large enough to meet the demand.  

To be clear, the Afghan Adjustment Act would not be the same as the temporary protected status that the federal government announced on Wednesday it would grant to Afghans currently living in the United States. This status allows Afghans currently living in the United States, including those who arrived on humanitarian parole, to remain legally in the country for an additional two years while they wade through the murky, overburdened systems to gain permanent status, if deemed eligible.

About 40 percent of these people are believed to eventually be eligible for special immigrant visas, according to reporting from the New York Times, but for the remaining 60 percent, no path to citizenship or a green card is provided.

The Afghan Adjustment Act would give these families a fast track to a permanent life here. 

What can we do here in Missoula? 

At Soft Landing, we are truly here for the long welcome. We feel a responsibility to ensure that the people who came here seeking safety, hope and the same kind of future we all aspire to are able to pursue those dreams. 

With that, we join the chorus of our community calling on federal lawmakers to take this step to introduce and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. 

We invite you to join the effort by learning more from other organizations doing this important work. Should you feel compelled, you can also call or write your representatives. 

“Nations who in the past have granted entry to the victims of political or religious persecutions have never had cause to regret extending such asylum. These persons with their intellectual idealism and toughness will become worthwhile citizens and will keep this nation strong and respected as a contributor of thought and ideals.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a Congressional Address on immigration, 1970 

Montana lawmakers in Washington D.C. 

  • Senator Jon Tester: email here or call (406)-728-3003 

  • Senator Steve Daines: email here or call (406)-549-8198 

  • Representative Matt Rosendale: email here or call (406)-502-1435

More reading: 

SLM Newsletter 2/11/22

“Thank you for your patience with my tardy reply…”

I am loosing count of how many of you may have received this exact first line in an email response from me lately and first off, I want to acknowledge that you also haven’t received a Soft Landing newsletter in your inbox in a while (not that anyone missed another email these days!). It is not because there is nothing to report, but quite the opposite- we have so much going on that I haven’t had a moment to think! And then the amount of things I want to tell you multiplies with every passing week and my brain explodes trying to think of how to fit it all into one letter- Sheesh!

But a few days ago, something happened that I can’t NOT celebrate with as many people as possible! We received the news that the first person in this 5+ year effort to welcome refugees to Missoula again has earned her citizenship! While incredibly impactful for her and what that means for a life full of agency and civic opportunity in her new home, it has been a carrot at the end of the stick for us all at Soft Landing. Just like the celebrations we have with newly licensed drivers, new babies, high school graduates and more, the experience of a new community member becoming a citizen is something that brings us all closer together. We are thrilled and so so excited for her. Congratulations!

Another reason that I have been having trouble getting out correspondence is because I have been a little at loss for words lately.  Ok, well, not general words, I don’t know that I have ever lost my ability to prattle on… but specific words around the pace, importance, and sensitivity of our work of “Welcoming” since August 15th and the fall of Kabul have been hard to come by. Missoula has welcomed close to 90 Afghans in the last short few months through the International Rescue Committee. I am sure you can imagine, and I won’t (can’t) go into all of it here, but it has been intense. I have been searching for language around the emotions surrounding this. Really, searching for what to say when people ask, “How’s it going? How does it FEEL to be a part of welcoming Afghan evacuees?”  When folks ask, it is easy to say the routine, “We are excited to welcome new Afghan friends!”.  As the leader of an organization built on rallying a city around the idea of “Welcome”, it almost feels like my duty to say. But are we really only “excited”? I can’t seem to separate my feelings of how honored, and yes excited, I feel that our community can provide shelter/safety/friendship/insert fuzzy word here, and the knowledge that those feelings of excitement have come at incomprehensible costs to those arriving here.

To have a heart so full of happiness/excitement and horror all at the same time is so incredibly dissonant. I think that must be what it is. To not quite know how to separate feelings of celebration with the horror of what people had to go through to land here- and with almost every family having some degree of family separation- the horror that continues.

I don’t think this is too different from any of the other refugee groups we work with and have been welcoming for the last 5+ years, but maybe with the haste of evacuations, the very real and recent trauma, the US responsibility, and the incredibly visible news cycles- this emotional dissonance just seems more pronounced and has forced me to reckon with it. I know I feel it also in our staff, and- just like COVID- it has helped us to prioritize a workplace that tries a little harder to hold each other closer, check-in more often, hug more, laugh together more. I am busy (as we all are!) and not always good at this, and their grace with me and each other is inspiring. Thank you team, you beautiful humans.

And thank you!  Thank you for your grace and trust and understanding that even when correspondence is tardy, we are still out here, working hard at the LONG welcome, that is not always (ever?!) easy to explain.

In love and gratitude,

Mary Poole
ED Soft Landing Missoula


Montana Afghan Project

New Afghan arrivals are here with only temporary status and must apply for, and get approved for, asylum to create a path for permanent residence. Seeking asylum is a LONG and often EXPENSIVE process. A generous group of lawyers and law students have gathered from around the state to do countless hours of pro bono work with Afghan evacuees to ensure that they can safely and legally remain in their new home.

To learn more about this incredible effort and how to support essential translation costs through the non-profit Respond Crisis Translation check out more info below.

LEARN MORE


Support Congolese Artists

Beautiful greeting cards with original art by local Congolese artists are now available for sale at our office- 939 Stephens.

Cards are sold as packets of 6 cards featuring three designs by Moses Bushiri and Lorenzo Mugandozi and are available for $20 per packet.

You can learn more about the artists and their recent cultural event “We are Congo” that showcased fashion, dance, music, and poetry below.

These make great Valentines Day gifts… Just sayin’…

LEARN MORE


SUPER-DUPER THANKS!

Pictured here is our Loren. Yup. He’s ours and no one else can have him- ever! Loren is not just a SUPER volunteer, but a SUPER-DUPER volunteer! You may have noticed him in almost every picture ever taken by us- helping students, aspiring new drivers, and anyone else that comes in with a question when he happens to be at the office (where he comes most every day at some point!) It feels like this one man magnifies the capacity of our resource center to serve clients by 100. He is truly super (super-duper?) human.

Loren- We love you. I know you may want to do another Peace Corps stint some time, but please never leave us 😉

We Are Congo – in case you missed it

Visual Portfolio, Posts & Image Gallery for WordPress

Event photos, courtesy of Ghislane Kasanga (see more of his work on instagram @g2k.photography).

 

In November, Soft Landing Missoula partnered with a collective group of local Missoula Congolese artists and designers We Are Congo for an exciting and dynamic evening of fashion, dance, poetry, and art at the ZACC. These unique expressions of fashion, dance, music, and art helped communicate their individual experiences in the world as Congolese, refugees, artists, and Missoulians.

Soft Landing Missoula was fortunate to receive a generous offer from MCAT (Missoula Community Access Television) for their production and documentary services to help capture this amazing event, which you can view here.

 

Each of these amazing community members continues their individual artistic pursuits; learn more about each effort below and ways to support them!:

Moses Bushiri – An activist and artist originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Moses left the DRC at age 14 and lived in neighboring Burundi with his family for 15 years before arriving in the United States in 2018. Moses values the ability art has to build connections and communicate life’s many experiences. He works primarily with poetry, painting, drawing, and drumming to spread messages of hope, share Congolese culture, and comment on current events. After finding peace here in Missoula, Moses hopes for world peace. He virtually leads a group of 5,000 young men, who remain in the DRC, who discuss how to move towards a brighter future in the DRC. For change to happen, Moses says, “everybody needs to think about the future of the country, to have a vision.

Esther Bushiri – A student at the University of Montana, Esther brought her love for dancing and modeling from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi to Missoula in 2018. When Esther is dancing, she always finds happiness. Dancing has become a way for her to escape from the sadness in the world, remain positive, and build community. In addition to dance, Esther turns to Sapologie Au Congo, a movement that embodies elegance and style in fashion. “When you look good, you have a fresh start despite what may have happened in your life.” She misses her friends and the noise of the cities in Burundi, but has found a home here in the mountains where she values the friendly people who have welcomed her and her family. Esther hopes for peace in the world, especially in the DRC. She uses art, dance, and humour to spread this message.

Safi Wakusolela & Elongo Gabriel – Safi and Elongo met 18 years ago in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Safi was a singer in Kinshasa and Elongo was studying at the university. When Elgono first met Safi he felt something different. When Safi is singing she takes Elongo to a new place of hope and inspiration because of her natural and unique voice. When Safi is singing she feels on top of the world and is able to embody her spirituality at its fullest. When Safi isn’t singing she enjoys cooking and styling hair. Elongo and Safi miss their culture and community back in Africa, but have found a love for their new home in Missoula. They enjoy getting to experience all four seasons and the educational opportunities for their 5 children. Find more of their music on youtube.

Charly & Luc Mugondozi – Chukastyle, also known as Charly Mugondozi, and his brother Luc Mugondozi, were born in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They became inspired to learn more about  fashion design after seeing the work of Hotstyle (Austin), a Congolese designer, at a fashion school in the DRC. Chukastyle loves how fashion allows him to incorporate traditional styles with his own creative style. In addition to designing apparel, he is a model. Chukastyle is excited to share his style with fellow Missoulians while not forgetting his roots in the DRC. Luc loves fashion because it showcases the styles and traditions of the DRC. Through this medium, Luc is able to add his own creativity and build upon the knowledge and style of his ancestors. After a career of teaching about fashion and design in Uganda, Luc is excited to share his styles with his fellow Missoulians.

Lorenzo Mugondozi – Lorenzo is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and came to Missoula via Kampala, Uganda in the winter of 2019. He has been drawn to the creative world since he was very young and enjoys painting, clothing design, and being a DJ. He hopes that through his art people can get a glimpse of Africa and the impact and strength that the continent has brought to the world.

Ghislane Kasanga – A student at the University of Montana with a side passion for photography, Ghislane is learning about and studying photography in addition to his study of Computer Science. He is available for photoshoots by request, feel free to email him directly: [email protected] !

 

How you can support We Are Congo!

  • Buy greeting cards: Available at Soft Landing Missoula offices, packets of 6 cards featuring three designs (2 of each) created by Moses & Lorenzo, are available for $20.

  • Support Chukastyle by buying their clothes or commissioning a unique piece! Inquiries can be directed to Greta at Soft Landing: [email protected]

  • Listen to Safi & Elongo & follow them on YouTube!

  • Need a photographer for portraits or cultural events? Reach out to Ghislane [email protected]

 

ART FOR A UNIFIED WORLD