A softer landing 

An Iraqi family dreamed of a new life in Missoula, but they landed here with a thud. As the world grapples with the worst refugee crisis in a generation, can a group of local moms convince the state to open its arms?

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.

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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.

  • photo courtesy of Naser Yahya

"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.

"I'm a new mom," Poole says. "I have my first baby, he's 10 months old. My little son, my little guy, Jack. Seeing that baby lying on that beach, with his little shoes, just facedown in the sand, it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. I could have seen that photo a year ago and been totally moved by it. But to see it as a mom, it's heartbreaking. I will cry right now if I pull the image into my head. You can't even imagine that that could be your baby child. And that he's one of hundreds, one of thousands."

More than four million Syrians—nearly one in five—have registered as refugees with the United Nations since the country's civil war erupted in 2011, and millions more have fled their homes within the country. The conflict began as an Arab Spring-inspired revolution to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose religious minority family has ruled Syria for decades. As Assad cracked down on protesters, thousands of armed rebel groups emerged. ISIS then gained a foothold in parts of the country, further intensifying the fighting. More than 200,000 people had been killed by the start of this year, according to the UN.

Syrians caught in the crossfire initially fled to neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which have provided temporary shelter to millions of refugees. Those countries started reaching their limits last year, says University of Montana history professor and Middle East expert Mehrdad Kia, forcing Syrians to look farther abroad.

click to enlarge Missoula chef Ray Risho prepares a traditional Syrian dinner in his home this month to raise money for Soft Landing Missoula, a group of local residents hoping to start a refugee resettlement program in the city. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Missoula chef Ray Risho prepares a traditional Syrian dinner in his home this month to raise money for Soft Landing Missoula, a group of local residents hoping to start a refugee resettlement program in the city.

"These people are generally folks who have left their apartments and cars and TVs and really their life behind in Syria," he says. "Syria had one of the largest middle classes in the Arab world."

The more moderate views of the Syrian middle class haven't been welcomed by conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kia says. At the same time, many western countries are also uncooperative.

The U.S., historically the world's most generous country toward refugees, has been slow to step into the current crisis, which involves two of America's most contentious political issues: immigration and the Middle East. The Obama administration does plans to increase the annual refugee limit from 70,000 to 100,000 in coming years, but with only a fraction of the total earmarked for Syrians.

As it currently stands, none of those refugees would be resettled in Montana, something Poole quickly discovered when researching the issue online.

"The entire nation is lit up," she says of a map she found on the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement website. "Then there's these two little gray states, Wyoming and Montana, that don't have anything."

So as Poole and Shappee were thinking of ways to help, they hit upon an idea: Bring 10 Syrian refugee families to Missoula.

Poole acknowledges their initial goal came from thin air, with little conception of how refugee resettlement works. The number seemed reasonable, and they were confident Missoula would welcome international newcomers—it had already done so for Hmong and Eastern European communities resettled here before. Plus, Poole says, it felt more significant, and perhaps more exciting, than "donating the hundred dollars over and over and over again."

Their group, which they dubbed Soft Landing Missoula, quickly grabbed attention. They picked up interviews with local media and added 200 members to their Facebook group in just a few days. Suddenly, Poole, a new mother who makes jewelry from home, found herself leading more volunteers than she knew what to do with. She and Shappee scrambled to organize meetings and corral the critics who were already trolling their group online.

The following week Poole met with another group of Missoulians who were developing their own refugee-focused project. They met around the dining room table at the home of international chef Ray Risho, who described for guests his own Syrian roots. After sketching mission statements and brainstorming initial steps, they turned their attention to an Iraqi family—Naser's family—who had recently moved to town.

Betsy Mulligan-Dague, the executive director at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, was asked to tell the group what she knew. It wasn't much. A week earlier she had been asked to accept donations to benefit the family, who she understood had just arrived. "They started pouring in," she says. But before she could get in touch with the individuals who were assisting the Iraqis, she heard the family had left.

"My takeaway from this," says Holly Truitt, director of UM's SpectrUM Discovery Area and one of those looking to help, "was that we had a really abrupt landing in Missoula."

Naser and Pakhshan's family photos could be those of any middle-class American family. Their digital albums record trips around the country, to museums and cities and parks, as well as birthday parties and dinners with friends. In one a young Asos sits at the head of a table, his eyes fixed upon a heap of noodles as the family tries authentic Chinese food for the first time. Beneath the Facebook post, a friend reminds the parents to watch the boy's portions.

click to enlarge Naser Yahya and Pahkshan Abdulla wear traditional Kurdish clothes to celebrate Kurdish Flag Day last year in southern Illinois, where the two were studying in graduate school before their asylum application was approved in July. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NASER YAHYA
  • photo courtesy of Naser Yahya
  • Naser Yahya and Pahkshan Abdulla wear traditional Kurdish clothes to celebrate Kurdish Flag Day last year in southern Illinois, where the two were studying in graduate school before their asylum application was approved in July.

Unlike refugees, who first register with the United Nations and are screened abroad for possible resettlement in another country, asylum-seekers request refugee status after arriving in their country of destination. (If an asylee's application is denied, he can be deported.) Immigrants of both types are often well educated or have professional skills, even if they don't speak English. Even so, they rely on short-term cash and social assistance from the U.S. government to help them find housing and employment. It's a transition period that, as Naser's family discovered, leaves them highly vulnerable.

This safety net is material, but Naser adds that his family's trouble in Missoula was also psychological. With no refugee office to go to, Naser describes a sense of isolation and fear that swelled with each day. His brother's death sharpened those feelings, which he tries to express using more general terms.

"[Refugees] will ask about basic services for them because they don't know the language, they don't know the culture, they don't know where to go," he says. "So they will wait for the government or the community to help them. But when they don't have this stuff they just think about other things."

If Naser and Pakhshan had shown up to Missoula before 2008, they would have found an office not unlike those in other states. For years Missoula played host to refugee populations from the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. Most notably, a few hundred Hmong refugees from Laos were resettled 40 years ago with the help of smokejumper and CIA agent Jerry "Hog" Daniels. Later, Missoula resettled exiles from Eastern Europe, including those from Belarus, the Ukraine and parts of Russia. A resettlement nonprofit serving the groups, the Missoula Refugee Assistance Corporation, dissolved eight years ago, IRS tax filings indicate, and Montana reverted to a bare-bones system.

Since then, Montana's refugee program has essentially been limited to part of one staffer in the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Katherine Quittenton has served as the state's coordinator for 15 months. According to the department, refugee work makes up only 8 percent of her assigned duties. Her training consisted of a two-hour conference call with federal officials.

Montana is the only state to have a refugee coordinator but no resettlement agency (Wyoming has neither). As such, none of the 70,000 refugees approved by the government each year are resettled here, though Quittenton says the state won't deny services to those who show up by other means. Four families are receiving services at present, according to DPHHS.

The arrangement could be excused in a rural, mountainous state where around half of its residents still live in counties designated as frontier. Yet neighboring Idaho has built one of the most robust refugee resettlement programs in the country, bringing in 1,000 or so refugees annually through programs in Boise and Twin Falls, according to the state's nonprofit Idaho Office for Refugees. Thirty-five came from Syria last year, director Jan Reeves says.

Advocates who have worked with refugees in Montana, meanwhile, say the state's passive approach leaves communities unprepared for those who do arrive, forcing volunteers to scramble and putting refugee families in precarious positions.

"It's bogus, I'm sorry," says Wilmot Collins, a former Liberian refugee who resettled in Helena in 1994. "Do we have the office just for show or do we have the office because we really mean it?"

Collins serves as the Montana representative to a UN refugee advisory group. He's also on the board of a Helena-based nonprofit, Refugee Center Online, that last year found itself aiding refugees who fell through the cracks.

click to enlarge Wilmot and Maddie Collins, former Liberian refugees now living in Helena, resettled in Montana in the 1990s. Wilmot says Montanans will be more open to refugees once they understand their experiences and the complicated U.S. resettlement process. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMOT COLLINS
  • photo courtesy of Wilmot Collins
  • Wilmot and Maddie Collins, former Liberian refugees now living in Helena, resettled in Montana in the 1990s. Wilmot says Montanans will be more open to refugees once they understand their experiences and the complicated U.S. resettlement process.

In June 2014, Jessica Marks got a phone call from a federal official at the Roosville Border Crossing in Eureka. The official called Marks after stumbling upon the Refugee Center Online. Marks created the project as a master's student in Bozeman after spending time in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border. She noticed many of the refugees were tech savvy, yet most refugee resources available online were aimed at administrators and case managers, not refugees themselves. The Refugee Center Online tries to fill the gap.

The nonprofit never envisioned managing individual cases, but Marks was versed in refugee law, so she was concerned with what she heard from the border agent in Eureka. Someone dropped off a Cuban family at the U.S./Canadian border, the official told Marks, and nobody knew what to do with them. The family spoke several languages, but not much English. The woman was also eight months pregnant. The state refugee coordinator's office allegedly said the Cuban family would not be eligible for services here, but Marks believed otherwise based on a special provision in U.S. law for Cuban and Haitian asylum-seekers.

An Eureka nonprofit arranged a ride for the Cuban family to Helena while Marks looked for emergency housing and tried to compel the state to help. The process wasn't easy. At one point, Marks says, a DPHHS staffer hung up on her.

It took nearly seven weeks for the family's cash benefits to get approved and for Marks' organization to be authorized to provide case management services, a delay Marks calls "unacceptable."

"In the meantime, there was literally nowhere for them to stay," she says.

After requests to more than a dozen local organizations were denied, Marks decided to pay for short-term housing. Ten days before the family's benefits kicked in, their baby was born.

Unusual cases like this pose challenges for any state, Marks says, but if Montana leaders put more effort into resettling refugees, she says the families who come here wouldn't be put at such risk.

"Right now our office is only reactive," Marks says. "If we were doing it proactively instead of just reacting to these urgent crisis situations, then our resettlement system would look a lot different, and I think that would actually have a positive benefit as well for these crisis situations because people would have more of an understanding of how to deal with a refugee, they would have seen a refugee before, they would have a resource to ask."

The problems weren't isolated, either. Several months later, as Marks began assisting a second Cuban family, she was instructed by the state's case management partner, Denver-based Lutheran Family Services, to limit her work to emergency situations or, as one email specifically put it, "ideally zero hours." The request was the result of a clerical error by the state after it let its contract lapse with Lutheran Family Services. DPHHS wrote in an email to the Indy the contract issues did not affect services to refugees. Lutheran Family Services declined to comment on its work in Montana.

click to enlarge Jenny Montgomery, standing at left, speaks to members of Soft Landing Missoula during a recent meeting at the downtown Missoula distillery she co-owns. Montgomery says she joined the group as a way to return the hospitality she experienced while living in Damascus with a Syrian poet. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • Jenny Montgomery, standing at left, speaks to members of Soft Landing Missoula during a recent meeting at the downtown Missoula distillery she co-owns. Montgomery says she joined the group as a way to return the hospitality she experienced while living in Damascus with a Syrian poet.

Marks felt the state's disorganization put her in an ethical bind and endangered her clients' trust. When the issues between the state and Lutheran Family Services lingered for a second month, the Refugee Center Online abandoned refugee case management in Montana.

Quittenton with DPHHS says the state generally processes refugee benefits in three to four weeks, with some coming together even quicker.

"We had one individual that it did take a little longer," Quittenton adds, but the individual lived with relatives in the meantime. "Typically that's what we see when they come to Montana. They have relatives here."

Delays can occur when refugees don't know to contact the state, Quittenton says. In Naser's case, she explains DPHHS was "not aware that they were here until they were here for three weeks."

Naser, who was in touch with a Missoula case worker, says his family was in Montana for fewer than 10 days total.

In wake of the Syrian conflict, Missoula residents weren't the only ones proposing that Montana could do more for refugees. Over the summer a Helena man, Stephen Maly, pitched it in an op-ed circulated to state leaders and printed in the Helena Independent Record.

"I've got a serious What if question," his column began.

Maly, who serves on the board for WorldMontana, a nonprofit that organizes international visits for the state, pointed out that despite the state's rich immigrant history, Montana now has the smallest proportion of foreign-born residents in the country. He went on to suggest ways refugees could contribute to local communities, asking readers to imagine eating at a local Syrian-owned restaurant.

"I know there are people who will be skeptical about this proposition," Maly wrote.

And there were. The column immediately spurred a post on an anti-immigration blog called "Refugee Resettlement Watch" warning Montanans that "the mosques will follow." The blog, which specifically questions the "wisdom" of bringing Muslim refugees to America, urged readers to begin investigating the backers behind Maly's organization and to write letters to the newspaper. A few letters followed, as did a rebuttal column.

This sort of pushback stamped out an effort last year to open a resettlement office in Wyoming, the only other state without one. The state's Republican governor had told federal officials he was interested in opening a center, only to back off when opposition emerged. Maly says while response to his op-ed encouraged him to move forward, it also gave him a taste for how fraught the issue could become. He's now trying to build support in a careful, open way.

"There are some people just watching, watching, watching, and as soon as any one of us speaks out loud, they're going to come down and ambush the thing. I'm convinced they're a very small minority, but they're very vocal, they're very energetic and they're highly motivated," Maly says. "Our best defense against ambush is, we're totally transparent about this ... We're not going to do this in the dark so nobody knows about it."

After their initial burst of enthusiasm, the members of Soft Landing Missoula likewise are being more deliberate in their approach. Shortly after announcing their plan to resettle 10 Syrian families in Missoula, Poole says they realized that such a specific goal doesn't quite mesh with the federal resettlement system. Instead, they now hope to attract one of nine nonprofit agencies that work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to open an office in Missoula so the city could again host an active resettlement program.

Poole says the group wants to consider all aspects of resettlement, including Missoula's tight employment and housing markets, to make sure refugees can succeed and be accepted by the community.

"We get that it's more challenging than, 'We're friendly, happy, hippie people here,'" she says. "We get that. But I also think Missoula is up for the challenge. I really do."

A tight housing market hasn't stopped communities such as Boise from serving refugees, according to Reeves, Idaho's refugee coordinator. Reeves says the program has built a network of partnerships between property managers, city leaders and local organizations to help refugees create new lives. In addition to core services, other programs help refugees obtain capital and find careers that align with their professional skills. When the recession put locals on edge, Reeves says he and the Boise mayor's office created a planning group that could enable residents to provide input on the city's program.

Soft Landing meetings so far have been held on weekday mornings inside Montgomery Distillery, where as many as 40 people talk over crying infants and a humming ventilation system about the challenges ahead. At the most recent meeting, the distillery's co-owner, Jenny Montgomery, suggested the group could eventually hold public forums, much like John Krakauer did when his controversial book on Missoula was released earlier this year.

Public discussion is just what Collins, the former Liberian refugee, says he's been hoping to prompt. Collins speaks with a stylish clarity that would splice easily into a public radio broadcast, and getting his message across Montana airwaves, it turns out, is one of his goals. Collins is worried that the current crisis in Syria is stoking as much fear as goodwill ("We know Islam got a bad rap") and says many Montanans don't understand the complex, lengthy process refugees undergo to be resettled.

click to enlarge Mary Poole, a local jewelry maker and mother of 10-month-old Jack, is leading an upstart effort to bring refugees to Missoula. She helped organize a group called Soft Landing Missoula after seeing images of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Mary Poole, a local jewelry maker and mother of 10-month-old Jack, is leading an upstart effort to bring refugees to Missoula. She helped organize a group called Soft Landing Missoula after seeing images of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach.

"If you're in the dark not knowing what's going on, just seeing people coming into your community, of course you kick against it," he says. "I live in a beautiful community that I know will open their arms if they knew what it was about."

Collins was a teacher in Liberia when the country's brutal civil war broke out in 1989. His wife, Maddie, had recently finished medical school. The couple stood in line for three days to board a UN peacekeeping cargo ship the same month rebels captured and dismembered President Samuel Doe in the streets of Monrovia. They ended up in Montana because Maddie had been an exchange student at Helena High School, in the same class as current Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. With the help of her former host family, Maddie came back on a scholarship to Carroll College, but Collins spent 31 months in Ghana waiting for his refugee application to be approved. When he finally met his daughter, she was nearly 2 years old.

He first worked as a janitor in Helena before eventually picking up shifts as a substitute teacher. "I still remember my first day in class when I was subbing, one of the little girls said, and I quote, 'Oh, the janitor is teaching today,'" Collins says. "Instead of just cleaning up for the kids, now I was impacting knowledge in their minds. And it took off from there."

Collins says he is excited to see support for refugees emerging in Missoula and elsewhere, but notes that expanding the state's resettlement program will ultimately require support from political leadership. "The state has to buy in," he says.

Maly and Soft Landing aren't yet ready to call upon local leaders for their help. Requesting a vote of support from Missoula City Council was one of Soft Landing's initial goals, but the group decided to hold off until their ideas were fully vetted. Gov. Bullock's office showed similar restraint when asked if the state has a responsibility to expand its refugee program in light of the situation in Syria.

"Seeing photos of refugees fleeing violence in their home country is heartbreaking," he said in a statement. "Montana historically has one of the smaller refugee programs in the nation. If Montanans and our churches want to welcome new families to the state, we can have discussions about how that can be accommodated with private and federal resources that are available."

When Naser's family eventually arrived in Nebraska, they quickly found refugee centers to help them settle in. "The refugee services are very accessible here, very easy," he says. "Not only me. I mean, a lot of refugees all over the world come to the city."

They don't have permanent housing yet, but Naser says officials have put the wait time at six months. By then, Pakhshan should have given birth to their twins. In the meantime, Naser is applying for jobs and for school, with hopes of eventually finishing a doctorate in international law and human rights. But he says that he and his wife haven't flushed Missoula from their memory, either.

"I mean, still I like Montana, and someday, if my situation gets better, someday I'll come back to Missoula to live there," he says. "My wife also, she likes to live there. But the reality was different from our dreams."

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