Supporter Stories: Greta Bates

I feel like the relationship we have created, the family I mentor and myself, is mutual. We are gaining a lot from each other. I get excited about future things, I want them to teach me things, I want to learn how to cook their cuisine, I see the way they raise their kids and I think, gosh, wow, when I have kids can I send them over to your house?! I like the balance of it. I definitely want to help and be a mentor but I too want their help and mentorship. A  balanced relationship is important to me.

I think people are eager, are excited. It’s really fun to have people come to town and be excited to be here. It’s fun for people to get involved in something where they feel good. I now have had the opportunity to make dolmas with a Syrian woman and through that created a friendship. In my opinion, people are striving to get involved and that is amazing!.

Something I have realized from all this, is people will have their opinions, and we will all have our opinions, nothing is going to be perfect. Some things are going to be negative and some things are going to be positive, but when you get to the face to face and you actually just meet someone, then you can make your judgement. There are going to be some people that come to Missoula that you aren’t going to get along with, but there are going to be those that become your friends, become your kids friends. And you’re going to have a future with them, and you’re going to share the experiences of life with them.

Greta Bates is a mentor through the IRC and a volunteer at Soft Landing Missoula.

Photo and Interview by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Ryan Nicodemus

I have been fortunate enough to travel internationally. I’ve been to Laos, in the middle of nowhere with one paved road, and the rest dirt roads that off shoot. There are tiny villages everywhere. Not being able to speak the language makes it hard to get anything done, and having someone who is willing to take me under their wing really helps. Someone to show me around, to introduce me to their friends, and to introduce me to the community. This type of help is invaluable. I could not imagine transplanting myself from my home to a foreign land, which is exactly what these folks are doing. Even more so, the refugees here need help not just to go to the store and meet people in the community, they need help to make a new life for themselves.

I used to manage a bunch of retail stores, and have experience with hiring. I’m glad this experience translates over to helping these new-comers find a job. If you’ve never been to a professional job interview, it can be intimidating. I’ve had several interviews and conducted more, so i’ve got a little insight on how to not make it so nerve wracking for those people trying to enter the workforce.

With refugees specifically, I was really looking forward to helping them with work, helping them find jobs to support themselves and integrate themselves into the community. But, of course it’s more than that, it’s bringing people to doctor’s appointments, taking them to English classes, and teaching them how to ride the bus. I’m incredibly grateful to be a volunteer and have this experience.

Ryan Nicodemus is a mentor through the IRC and a volunteer at Soft Landing Missoula

Photo and interview by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Andi Hoelzel and Eleanor

Working with families, there have been a couple instances where we’ve been out in the community and I’ve felt nervous about interactions we’ve had with people. There was an incident with a family where we had gone ice skating and, at the end of our adventure, we turned in all our skates and there was a hockey game starting at the other end of the rink. The family was interested in the game because hockey was very new to them so we watched a little. Prior to the hockey game, they did the national anthem, and there was a gentleman with beers by him standing there very macho. He reached over to the father of my family as the national anthem began and took his hood off his head. I think he may have tried to engage him a little bit verbally first, but then just reached over and pulled his hood. So, I got closer and sort of nervously stood beside him thinking, “Ugh, what’s going to happen next.”

The father of the family didn’t understand the interaction. He’d literally been in the country for two weeks and he spoke very little English. He didn’t understand that this man was trying to tell him to take his hood off. I felt all this tension in my body, that I’d absolutely step in if it escalated.  Then the national anthem ended and the guy reached over and said, “Hey man, you can put your hood back on,” in this very aggressive way. It felt very much like he was looking to him like, “you’re not from here, you don’t belong here, and I’m going to show you that you need to abide by these cultural norms.”

I just grabbed the family and said, “okay, it’s time to go!”

There is some of that, and I worry. But, mostly people have been warm and ask a lot of questions and have concerns about how the families are adjusting.

Andi volunteers at the IRC as a mentor and at Soft Landing Missoula

Photo and interview by Elliott Natz


Supporter Stories: Jim Adams

The other two families we’re working with are from Iraq and both the dads are translators for the U.S. Army. Both of them were on a waiting list for four years or almost four years. I was really ignorant of how things transpired there. When the U.S. Army pulled out, unlike other countries we left our people there, all the people that helped us.

I read a couple articles and the estimate is some 2,000 people helped the armed forces and were left.

Great Britain and Germany and other countries that were there offered their local people the opportunity to come with them when they left and we didn’t do that. And I think that’s a really shameful thing for this country to do.

Jim Adams is Involved with three families and works as an accountant at the Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at University of Montana.

Interview and photo by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Patrick Duffy

Part of me questions the motivation of the question, “why are we helping refugees instead of our veterans?” Whenever I hear someone say anything about our poor veterans, I always say, “When did you serve?” And it’s clearly a minority of people that ever did. I am a veteran, I did serve. If I’m talking to a veteran then it’s a different conversation than when I’m talking to someone who really doesn’t understand military service, what it does, what struggles veterans go through.
There are some real issues there. There are issues with homelessness, drug addiction, PTSD, all kinds of things.

But to say “until we get every veteran problem fixed, we should not look to help refugees” – I don’t think that’s who we are as a country.

I sometimes think it’s an excuse for people to not have to give true voice to some fears and some other feelings they have about refugees.

It’s also so very counterproductive to argue with folks who compare the two. It is a far better course to hear them out and educate them.

Patrick Duffy is a Mentor through IRC.

Photo and interview by Elliott Natz

Join Us on First Friday in June!

For the June First Friday event on June 2nd, we will be exhibiting the photos and stories from our digital story project, With Open Arms: Stories About Helping Refugees in Missoula. The project sought to bring attention to those in our community working to help refugees find a comfortable life in Missoula. 

Some volunteers will be present to discuss with visitors more in-depth their experiences working with refugees from around the world. 

The show will be presented next to Radius Gallery in their annex hallways from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. Radius Gallery is located at 114 E Main St. in downtown Missoula. It is a half block east of Higgins on Main.



Supporter Stories: Dona and Gary Aitken

“It’s pretty amazing to me that some of these countries even allow Americans in. It’s amazing to me that some people in these countries don’t hate Americans, that their knee-jerk reaction isn’t to hate Americans like some Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is to hate Hispanics, for example. They have every reason in the world to say get your ass out of here. But they don’t.

“So why do many people in these countries still embrace Americans? Maybe because despite our past atrocities and unethical behavior we have also helped many people. Maybe our somewhat transparent government is still much better than what they have experienced at home. Maybe it is because the people they have encountered–Americans who actually travel abroad in non-touristy places–are generally kind, helpful and generous. I don’t know, but I wish I did, for it might tell us something valuable.”

Photo and Interview by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Dona and Gary Aitken

“I have tremendous empathy and compassion for these people. If you have any concept of what they’ve been through one can’t help but feel compassion for them and admire their courage and resilience.  Some of the guys spent their whole lives in a refugee camp. 18 years. And some of the things they were fleeing in the Congo were abominable. Frankly, I feel some responsibility for the Congo mess. If the US hadn’t aided in the assassination of Patrice Lamumba so long ago, who knows where the Congo would be today. We’ve been on the wrong side of so many situations in the developing world that have ended in such a mess, that to some extent I feel some sense of responsibility as an American. So it just seems important to help.  It also is important to show a more generous and welcoming side of America than the current administration presents.”

Dona and Gary both taught in English Namibia while traveling through the country. Dona taught biology courses and Gary computer science. They are now Driver’s Education instructors at Soft Landing Missoula. 

Photos and Interview by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Kristin Freeman (2/2)

Last month, Kristin read an article in the Montana Kaimin called “In Search of Home: Refugees Struggle for a Place in Missoula.” The article describes the struggles of refugees getting to America and how they adjust to life once they arrive. A quote from Joel Kambale, a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inspired Kristin to write the poem below. The quote was, “Where we are working, we are being asked many questions: ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Who brought you here?’ Such questions are not good,” Kambale said. Kristin felt deeply troubled by those questions and put her emotions into the words below. 

The Husband Speaks From His Heart

Words pierce the air, so off hand,
where do you come from and why are you here?
the questioning people demand.
Who is your family and where do they live?
Invasive, intrusive, interrogative.

So much concern for what we are made of
have we tested your DNA?
It seems not enough to have skills and show up
The prodders still push in, that’s their way.

What does it matter to folks all around
to be poking for info, to dash with their tongues?
It’s so plenty hard for good work to be found,
to be dependable, honest and climb up the rungs.

I know where I come from, the stories were told
over and over by relatives young and old.
Yet I feel not better than those just come here.
It’s my desire to welcome all folks, I am clear.

Kristin McNamara Freeman
April 2017

Read the first post about Kristin.

Photos and Interview by Elliott Natz

Supporter Stories: Kristin Freeman (1/2)

As politics were getting so heavy last fall, I was feeling depressed for the first time ever in my life. I was telling my physical therapist, “Boy, I’m going to start seeing a counselor to try and find a way to deal with this depression.”  I’ve never felt so bad before and there’s all this news that’s so negative.

She said, “Have you ever thought about calling Soft Landing and maybe seeing if you might find some work with the refugees?”

And I went home, I filled out the application, at her encouragement. And I went and volunteered to be at tutor. ‘Cause I was depressed. The decision we came to was if I could put my energy into doing things that were good, that I could change my trajectory of feeling depressed into one of feeling joy and happiness. So instead of being sad, I got to be happy.

Read the second post about Kristin.

Kristin Freeman is a tutor at Soft Landing Missoula. She spends her other hours tending to her garden, helping raise two grand-kids, knitting and crocheting, and writing.

Photo and interview by Elliott Natz