Naser Yahya and Pakhshan Abdulla felt nauseous as they arrived in Missoula last month. The drive from southern Illinois had been long. Pakhshan, pregnant with twins, was experiencing intense morning sickness. Their 5-year-old boy, Asos, was restless in the backseat of their Dodge Caravan, which was packed with everything the family owned. Naser worried about the fact they didn't have much money or a place to sleep. But they made it to the valley of their dreams, where the surrounding mountains looked almost like those in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, the home to which they couldn't return.
Naser and Pakhshan came to the United States in 2012 to study advanced university degrees just as U.S. troops left Iraq, leading to a burst of violent insurgency. The couple realized they wouldn't be able to return anytime soon, but their student visas didn't allow them to work in the states. "So we just got stuck between those two countries," Naser says.
Instability in Iraq brought particular risk for the Kurds, an ethnic minority long persecuted by government regimes, especially under Saddam Hussein's rule. Naser says his village, an hour or two north of Erbil, has been burned several times.
Naser and Pakhshan had another reason to fear returning home, a secret they carried with them to Illinois. Shortly before leaving Kurdistan, Naser met Christian missionaries who slipped him a copy of the Bible. His family read it, and once in America, they began attending church. The faith grew in them, but they didn't tell relatives, suspecting their conversion wouldn't be accepted.
It was on these grounds the family applied to the U.S. government for political asylum. Three years later, in July 2015, their application was approved. By then, though, aspects of their relatively comfortable life in America were less secure. Financial support from Iraq had ceased and they couldn't afford another semester in graduate school. But they were finally eligible to work and they could count on several months of refugee assistance. They also had a path to become American citizens. This was their chance to start anew.
The U.S. has resettled more refugees and harbored more asylees than any other country, and hundreds of cities have offices where they can go for help activating their short-term government benefits, find housing and apply for jobs. Montana communities have no such offices and thus very few refugees.
Still, in light of the good news, Montana hung in Naser's imagination. He viewed it as a place that felt like home, where his family could also practice their new religion openly. They chose Missoula upon the advice of friends who had spent time here in the 1980s. "They told me, 'It is a nice city, you can go there,'" Naser says.
The family arrived on Sept. 9, 2015. Naser won't forget the date, because he says it is also the day he learned one of his brothers, a sniper with the Kurdish Peshmerga military, was killed while fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS.
"We were tired from the road," Naser says. "At the same time ... we were very disappointed from the war. So we were in a very, I mean, desperate situation. I don't know how to explain it."
Though Naser says he knew Montana had few refugees, he underestimated what lie ahead. Upon arrival he hopped from office to office, looking for assistance. He doesn't remember everywhere he went, but the stops included the YWCA, Salvation Army, the Poverello Center and the housing authority. Many people—he calls them "friends"did what they could to help, he says, but "the challenges were related to other issues, like services, like immediate housing."
One friend secured the family a hotel room for a night, which became four, then five. It's not uncommon for refugees in America to stay in hotels briefly until housing becomes available, but Naser's family was beginning to struggle with grief and uncertainty. Their government benefits hadn't kicked in yet. Pakhshan was sick and without proper medication. They couldn't cook in the hotel room, nor find comfort in Middle Eastern cuisine. Asos, too, was missing some of his first days of kindergarten.
"My wife started to cry after seven days in Missoula," Naser says. "She started to cry, and every night I was just helping her to stay strong, to be positive, because she was always saying, 'Naser, we don't have a place to live, we don't have money, what should we do?'"
"I said, 'No, don't worry, I think it's getting better.'"
They didn't have time to wait and see. Some cousins lived in Lincoln, Neb., a city with a large refugee population and better services. They would go there. After a week in Missoula, they called it off.
"At the end we were unable to do anything," Naser says. "We just say, 'Sorry,' to our friends. 'Obviously, we have to go back.'"
The same time Naser and Pakhshan were in Missoula, a group of residents had refugees on their minds. Specifically, the photographs of Syrians in boats and on beaches in Europe, where the largest refugee crisis since World War II was washing up on shore.
The images that rattled the globe were published on Sept. 3. They showed a Syrian toddler lying on a Turkish beach, having drowned during his family's attempt to reach the European Union. Newspapers put the child's lifeless body on their front pages. "The shocking, cruel reality of Europe's refugee crisis," read The Guardian headline.
Two Missoula mothers, Mary Poole and Kim Shappee, called each other after being struck by the images, wondering what they could do.