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. 

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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: G2k.photos@gmail.com !

 

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: greta@softlandingmissoula.org.

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

  • Need a photographer for portraits or cultural events? Reach out to Ghislane G2k.photos@gmail.com

 

ART FOR A UNIFIED WORLD

In Response…

With the incredible outpouring of support for our work in Missoula, especially in light of renewed motivation with the situation in Afghanistan, we still find the families who have arrived in Montana as refugees mis-represented and mis-understood by some of the leadership in our state. This statement is in response to a 12/9 Opinion piece that has been run in multiple Montana papers- “Afghan Resettlement Endangers our Communities” by Representative Matt Rosendale.

*** You can also listen to our Executive Director, Mary Poole, read it here***

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Soft Landing Missoula is a locally-born, grass roots non-profit that has had the absolute privilege of being a part of welcoming and working with refugees resettled in Missoula, MT for the last five years. As we, once again, watched heartbroken as families fled an extremely difficult and dangerous situation, we felt honored that our community was selected to be one of the hundreds of places across the country that Afghan evacuees will find new homes, new communities, new hope. We consider this work an honor and continue everyday to receive more than we could ever give.

That said, there are some that think this work is too hard, that it has too many challenges and utilizes too many resources. That it can never be safe enough. That we can’t take care of ourselves and newcomers.

Refugee resettlement never has been, nor will it probably ever be, easy. Families are fleeing horrific violence and persecution, coming to a place where they have to learn a new language and many times start completely from scratch. It requires funding, it requires the community’s time and engagement, it requires building the kind of relationships, infrastructure, and programming that Missoula has embarked on these last 5 years. It requires constant adaptation and innovation- both locally and on a national and international level to ensure that each unique situation is evaluated and addressed in a way that is both safe, effective, and the right thing to do. It has been a lot, and it has been hard work that has utilized all sorts of physical and human resources in our city. But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be done. Just because it requires work and resources, doesn’t mean that it also doesn’t far exceed in end benefits- for all. Infact, if you were to ask those Montanans involved, those committing the time, those gifting a good chunk of the funding, those having to shift structures in their workplaces to bring more equity to their services,- they will mention that at some times there are challenges, and at some times it is hard. But, first they will probably smile and tell you a story or two about new, true friendships that have changed their lives and the experiences they have learned from along the way.

Knowing the hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in our own community, refugee and American-born alike, that now share all of these experiences and have built their lives together for the last 5 years, we can only imagine that Rep. Rosendale feels the way he feels for the simple reason that he must not know. He must not know the real challenges, the real dedication, the real triumph, and the real joy of believing in, celebrating, and working hard for a humanity that is so much bigger than your own.

And how could he know these things like we know these things? He has never visited us. He has never met with us and sat with our new neighbors. He has never heard their stories that tell of a journey from a beloved home, to hell, and then to here. Not a journey free from challenges and sorrow now that they are here, but still a journey rich with friendships, community, family, hard work, opportunity, and yes, joy. He hasn’t seen smiles on the faces of the children when they splash in Seeley Lake or view the mountains in Glacier National Park for the first time. He doesn’t know the relief, mixed with fear, mixed with hope, of a dad watching his daughter hop on a school bus for the first time since her life was threatened for attending school and they fled. He hasn’t witnessed a mother cradle her most precious possession that only by luck and grit was she able to bring to this place. He hasn’t watched a young man light up at the chance of finding a job working with computers- a universal language he learned back home and now gets to bring here. He hasn’t met a young woman as a first-generation college student, pouring over homework until late in the night after she gets off of work, but doing it and succeeding.

And maybe he hasn’t had the experiences that make you realize that these are the same smiles of your children, these are the same hesitations and fears of your father, this is the same love of your mother, the same joy of your brother, and the same hard-won success of your sister.

Maybe he doesn’t know that refugees’ lives are built not only on the same emotions, hopes and dreams, but also on the same values. What family that has gone through what a displaced family has gone through would not value the security and safety he speaks of? What man who has gone through the agony of having to leave his brother behind would not constantly be driven by the value of the importance of family. What parent that has to start back at square one in a low-wage job to make sure their kids have access to education doesn’t share the value of hard work and perseverance? What human who has been stripped of their rights, livelihood, loved ones, and safety doesn’t value the independence and opportunity for self-determination of damn near every Montanan I have ever met?

So yes, a lot goes into all of this. It’s a lot of work. But a lot goes into life. Any life. When you get the privilege of knowing the human beings that arrive here in Missoula as refugees, as so many of us have, there is no denying that just as the lives of our loved ones are worthy of all of the hard work, resources, and challenges that go into making a life, so are the lives of refugees. And not because the process is perfect- life is messy- and not because the people are perfect- who among us are?- but because they are people.

So, Rep. Rosendale, we would love to extend an invitation. Will you come see us? Will you sit with us and eat with us? Share a coffee or some tea? Will you visit with Afghans and refugees from other places? Will you hear the stories of your constituents dedicating time and resources to the challenges and the joys of welcoming refugees? Yes, this letter is a little bit of a challenge, but it is not a hostile one, just a heartfelt hope to share with you what we have come to learn over the last five years. Our door is open, any time.

In love and gratitude…

Mary Poole and the Soft Landing Missoula

Soft Landing Missoula is hiring!

We are hiring a full time Outreach and Communications Manager! Check out the job description below and please feel free to share!

Soft Landing Missoula

(a fiscally sponsored project of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs)

Outreach and Communications Manager

30 hours a week (negotiable), $18-20  / hour DOE

The Outreach and Communications Manager will join Soft Landing Missoula’s dynamic non-profit organization as a team player, focusing on leading organizational storytelling and outreach and supporting fundraising efforts and events. They will work in a fast-paced, interactive office environment to help Soft Landing enhance its ability to serve a growing number of resettled refugees and immigrants, and continue to increase Missoula’s capacity to be a welcoming community. 

This position is flexible, but primary hours need to be in office and spread across the work week. Occasional night and weekend hours required.

Benefit Package Includes: SLM is committed to supporting a healthy work-life balance and we offer a generous benefits package for full time employees (30+ hrs/wk) Medical, dental, vision, and life insurance premiums are covered for the employee. In addition, SLM offers 20 paid vacation days each year, 10 paid sick days per year and 12 paid holidays. SLM will offer 6 weeks of paid family leave to full time employees welcoming a new family member who have been employed for at least one year.

About Soft Landing Missoula:

Our vision is to help Missoula be a welcoming, supportive and informed community that can assist refugees to integrate and thrive. Soft Landing Missoula operates under Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization providing fiscal sponsorship.

The Outreach and Communications Manager will:

  • Be a key player in the “voice” of Soft Landing Missoula and the stories we tell.

  • Work collaboratively with other staff on fundraising, friendraising, outreach, and education projects and assignments as needed. 

  • Create a marketing and social media plan that dovetails with Soft Landing’s annual fundraising plan to strengthen financial sustainability and advance community education and outreach.

  • Take the lead on the coordination and organization of small and large events as assigned. 

  • Manage and implement a communications calendar with at least 2 weekly social media posts, including content creation in partnership with staff and awareness of major holidays/themes/events.

  • Manage social media comments and community building.

  • Provide website support for both Soft Landing Missoula and United We Eat.

  • Provide graphic design support for Soft Landing Missoula and United We Eat.

  • Contribute to the creation and management of marketing and fundraising materials such as brochures, infographics, impact reports, appeals/thank yous, and merchandise. 

  • Maintain and update mailing lists in MailChimp and assist with the development of email marketing content for outreach and fundraising purposes.

  • Assist with coordinating and delivering on sponsorship recognition and reporting for special events.

The ideal candidate will have:

  • A sense of humor and an adventurous spirit

  • Discretion and confidentiality with respect to Soft Landing clients and supporters

  • Experience with ethics of storytelling

  • Ability to work as a team and independently on a diverse set of goals and projects

  • Commitment to kindness, confidentiality, and accuracy of sensitive records

  • Proven ability to prioritize and manage multiple projects simultaneously and meet deadlines. 

  • Organized with exceptional attention to detail and accuracy

  • Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a relevant field is preferred 

  • Proficiency in Microsoft Office and Google Suite

  • Experience with Mailchimp

  • Graphic design and website experience

  • Social media and marketing experience

  • Event planning experience

To apply, please submit a cover letter, resume, and two references to molly@softlandingmissoula.org

We will begin interviews in early January in hopes of a start date in early February or before.

2021 Year End Giving- Celebrating five years of your support!

Dear friend,

I’m thrilled to celebrate a huge milestone with you: Five years of working with refugee and immigrant families in Missoula!

Looking back, I haven’t forgotten how it felt to witness the Syrian refugee crisis unfolding in the news, with my then newborn baby in my arms.

That moment ignited the Missoula community’s desire to act.

By joining forces with friends and neighbors, families from around the world who were torn form their homes found safe ones in here in Missoula.

Today, we’re celebrating that for five years, our community has welcomed hundreds of new neighbors who are embarking on the next chapter in the stories of their lives. 

We’re celebrating that we’ve supported refugee and immigrant families through our Community Resource Center, Youth programs, United We Eat, driver education classes, and U.S. citizenship tutoring. 

We’re celebrating that we haven’t done this work alone. We’ve done it together with you – a generous community of donors, volunteers, and partner organizations that makes this welcome possible. 

Every day at Soft Landing, I see the difference you make in the lives of Missoula’s new neighbors and I am truly awed. 

DONATE TODAY

Our friend, Aoci, was the first to arrive as a refugee in Missoula when resettlement restarted through our efforts five years ago. He recently came to see us for help studying for his U.S. citizenship. I asked him about his five-year anniversary in Missoula and he said, “I love many things in Missoula. I received a good welcome from people in Missoula. I have work, I’m feeling good because my life is good now.”

He added with excitement, “I’m studying very hard [for citizenship]. Soft Landing helps me study. Now, I’m ready to help someone. You know why? The Bible says, ‘When you receive free you can give someone free too.’ I’m ready to teach someone for free because someone is teaching me for free.”

We’re also celebrating that in the coming year, our community will welcome twice as many new neighbors as in any previous year. It’s an exciting moment in our collective journey. 

Over the next year,  Missoula will be resettling 150 refugees and 75 additional individuals from Afghanistan. We’ll also work alongside the 200 individuals we’ve come to know and love as family over the past five years. 

Your contribution will help more families that ever connect to Soft Landing’s free support and resources that help from arrival through citizenship . . . and beyond. 

We’re excited to welcome 225 new neighbors in the coming year. Five years into this incredible journey and with your continued support, we feel prepared to meet this wonderful challenge. 

Steadfast support from passionate, caring people like you means that together this “soft landing” will continue. We are deeply grateful. 

This season, will you give so that together we can welcome and help more families to integrate and thrive here in Missoula? 

DONATE TODAY

In love and gratitude,

Mary Poole
Executive Director, Soft Landing Missoula

SLM Newsletter 9/20/21

Afghan and New Arrivals-

75. The number of that many of us have heard by now, representing the proposed number of Afghan Humanitarian Parolees who may be coming to Montana. I know that when we heard that this was a possibility, it took the edge off of our broken hearts, and when you all heard, you immediately reached out asking how to help.

We want to outline some ways below, but quickly, we want to make note that this is still a PROPOSED number, even though it was reported by national media and quickly wrapped up in a wild twitter storm (Thanks Wilmot for your perfect response!). While all involved believe that this number will be approved by the beginning of the Fiscal Year (Oct 1st.), we know that we have earned your trust by being clear and honest and we want to make sure we continue that.

For those of you who have reached out wondering how you can help, we are creating a fund from which we will be able to offer direct support for these families- The Afghan and New Arrivals Fund.

There is an incredible amount of uncertainly right now, not just on how many folks might come to Missoula, but what their status will be when they get here, and what support that might qualify them to receive. Previous families who have come through the IRC arrive with refugee status. Because of this, they initially get access to social services, get work authorization right away, and have a 5 year path to citizenship. The Afghans who may be coming will arrive here as Humanitarian Parolees, and if things stay the same, this will mean that they are not eligible for any of those things, including TANF, SNAP, and possibly work authorization. Under Humanitarian Parolee status, they won’t even have a guaranteed path to stay in the US, and will probably have to go through the lengthy, uncertain, and often expensive process of applying for Asylum. There is a great 15 minute podcast that lays this out nicely if you are interested in learning more.

Luckily, they will receive case management through the IRC for 30-90 days, meaning that just as with other refugee arrivals, the IRC will work with them to secure initial housing, initial employment (if this is allowed), get kids enrolled in schools, and the other excellent services available through IRC case management. But still, this leaves HUGE gaps for families just starting new lives here with how much they had to leave behind and Soft Landing has been called to help in any way that we can.

I wanted to explain this to you all so you could see, as we have recently seen, that the best way for Soft Landing to help support these families as they arrive is to do something a little different than we have ever done and set up a fund to directly help fill some of these gaps left by the inability to access social services.

The fund will be administered with help form the Soft Landing Missoula board and will go towards things like:
– Rental assistance
– Food security
– Seasonally appropriate clothing needs
– Home goods and toiletries
– Phone/internet assistance
– Immigration assistance needs

Lastly, we also feel that is is important to tell you another number that wasn’t a part of the national reporting: 150.

150 is the proposed number of refugee arrivals to Missoula this coming year. Again, yes, it is still PROPOSED, but when this number gets approved in the same timeframe as the Afghan number, Missoula is looking to see up to 225 people resettled here this year. That is over 100 more than have come in any one year the past five years. While Afghan Humanitarian Parolees will likely have a unique set of needs, refugees coming from horrible situations in other parts of the world will also have unmet needs, and are also as deserving of this little bit of extra love and support that a fund like this can offer.

I know that we have been asking a lot of you lately. You just knocked our socks off with our Annual Kitchen Fundraiser and our biggest fundraising effort of the year for our general operating costs- End of Year giving- seems just right around the corner. But we feel that this is important enough, and that so many of you have asked, that if we can do it, we should do it. Not to mention, the Rosendale twitter storm referenced above… Well, that one might have backfired on him as we saw donations roll in from across the country! We took this as a sign that the best response we could have to his misguided and inhumane comments would be to take the money he raised for us and use it to give right back to the Afghan families he opposes. We are excited to say that he raised over $10,000 for us from 118 donors all around the country and Soft Landing Missoula is committing the entirety of this sum to launch this fund. We would love to see this fund double and are wondering if you would like to help?
If this sounds like something you have the ability to gift to at this time, you can find the spot to do that here.

And there are additional ways to help as well. I hope you have made it to the end of this crazy long email and I will leave you with a little list we brainstormed with the IRC team.

– Contribute to the Afghan and New Arrivals Fund

– Contact us with interest in providing translation in Dari and/or Pashto- lauren@softlandingmissoula.org

– Contact us if interested in providing probono legal support- lauren@softlandingmissoula.org

– Anyone interested in donating furniture can contact Sarah.Howerton@rescue.org

-Anyone with housing leads or inquiries (including temporary in-home stays) can contact Nyota.Haley@rescue.org

– Anyone interested in volunteering to be a part of a Family Mentor Team can contact Sarah.Howerton@rescue.org

– Bring new or gently used warm winter outerwear by the SLM office and check out the Welcome Kits, Urgent Items, and Always Items on our website. Any questions, please contact Heather@softlandingmissoula.org

Thank you. We have a HUGE year ahead of us and we are incredibly excited to join you in being a part of the warm welcome these new families will receive in Missoula.

In love and gratitude,

Mary


Welcoming Week 2021 was a huge success! We saw you dancing to West African drums at Imagine Nation Brewing Co., nibbling on delicious treats and sipping aromatic Eritrean coffee at Masala, engaging in our new storytelling project- “Stories of Home”- at the Missoula Public Library, creating an amazing meal in your own kitchen with the guidance of Iraqi chef Anne Matti, and sliding around on a rainy pitch while enjoying the shared language of Futbol! Thank you for showing up for us- it was wonderful to see you! We would like to give one last shout out to this year’s Welcoming Week sponsors- THANK YOU for helping us make this happen! Also, below you will see more info on the two events that were launched this past week that will continue on– creating two more ways for you engage in celebrating and supporting refugees and immigrants in Missoula any day- Enjoy!


United We Eat

You have asked for more opportunities to enjoy the incredible food coming out of our United We Eat kitchen and more ways to support the chefs that are creating them. We have answered this call!

Starting this week, United We Eat will have a rotating menu of grab and go items such as dips, sauces, soups, salads, and treats available at Masala (206 W. Main St.) during business hours, Monday through Saturday.

That’s right- we are so excited that now you can enjoy UWE food not one, but six days a week! Thank you Masala for your partnership!


Stories of Home

Good news if you missed this event during Welcoming Week- our Stories of Home exhibit will be up on the 4th floor fo the Missoula Public Library through the end of the month!

Come see stunning portraits paired with audio from interviews exploring refugee and immigrant experiences with homes left behind, homes found, and the experiences in between.

Audio is accessed through scanning a QR code on your own smartphone, but you can also check out an mp3 player with the audio at the MCAT desk on the first floor if needed.


Eritrean Coffee now available at Masala!

Anyone who has experienced the pleasure of drinking freshly roasted and freshly brewed Eritrean coffee will tell you that it is some of the best coffee on the planet. In fact, coffee originated in neighboring Ethiopia and it’s name- Buna- is more than likely why we call this fruit seed a bean!

Shewit Hadera is now brewing up fresh Eritrean coffee M-F at Masala (206 W. Main St.), 6am-10am. Stop in, grab an excellent cup of coffee (and maybe even some United We Eat grab and go items!) and show Shewit some love!

P.S. Parking is GREAT there that time of day 😉


As we transition into our fall youth programing, we are reflecting back on our incredibly amazing and PACKED summer. In total, we served 70 youth through our ESL Class, Book Club, Craft Nights, and 11 social and recreational activities. 21 volunteers and our Summer AmeriCorps team collectively dedicated over 1,000 hours to our youth program this summer! What an awesome summer! Thank you so much to everyone that made it happen!


It has begun! Even though it looks like we still might have a bit of warmth and sun left in September, this chilly weather has reminded us to start collecting warm winter OUTERWEAR! Please bring by any gently used, warm, weatherproof coats, gloves, snow pants, and boots. General clothing items and sweaters not accepted due to very limited space. Thank you!