Twenty years ago, Molly Cottrell was living in Atlanta, Ga., where she was among a team of volunteers helping refugees from Burundi, Afghanistan and Nigeria settle into their new American city. She tutored children after school and took them trick-or-treating on their first Halloween. Quick visits to say hello to their families frequently turned into long conversations over tea.
"I think everyone you talk to who's worked with refugees will tell you the same thing," Cottrell says. "You get more out of it than you feel like you give."
Cottrell thought she was leaving the experience behind when she moved to Montana. Now, as the International Rescue Committee restarts its long-dormant resettlement program in Missoula this month, she finds herself leading the effort to assemble a small army of volunteers so the city's new residents can land on their feet. The first family should arrive by the end of the month.
While nonprofits such as the IRC coordinate resettlement and social services, the agencies also lean on local volunteers to help refugees become comfortable in a new place, says Missoula office Executive Director Molly Short Carr. As she sets up the IRC office, members of Soft Landing Missoula are preparing to answer the call.
Missoula's first refugees are sure to experience culture shock. They'll be traveling from refugee camps outside the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the central African nation still reeling from wars that began in the 1990s. Those conflicts have been among the most deadly in modern history, noted in particular for the use of rape as a weapon of war. The first refugees slated to resettle in Missoula have been living in a refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania since 2005 or earlier, Short Carr says.
They will arrive to a place that's received national attention for the way residents and local officials extended an invitation to refugees just as resettlement became embroiled in presidential politics. But Missoula's hospitality is coupled with anti-immigrant sentiment that human rights advocates say threatens to create a climate of fear around the state. Resettlement opponents have forged government documents, wished rape upon a city council member and harassed a Corvallis businessman with hundreds of threatening phone calls after he was incorrectly accused of building apartments for refugees.
- photo courtesy of Molly Short Carr
- Around 60,000 Congolese refugees live in the Nyarugusu camp in neighboring Tanzania, pictured above, including those scheduled to be resettled in Missoula in August.
"The threat of violence to those even supporting or being welcoming to refugees is the type of thing that can really lend itself to further fear by immigrants, refugees and other oppressed people, but also to general fear among others in our community," says Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network.
While politics isn't typically on the mind of a refugee trying to adjust to a new country, Short Carr says refugees have started to ask officials abroad if their resettlement might be jeopardized by a Donald Trump presidency. Still, she believes the prospect of Missoula refugees facing violence isn't an "overwhelming fear" and won't overshadow the work of helping them start anew in Montana.
"It's really hard to be mean to a little kid, I mean, or a mother with her child," Short Carr says. "Once you see that they are people, too, it's not so easy to stand up and pound your chest and say, 'We don't want them here.'"
More likely, the first refugees will be exposed to the city's welcoming side. IRC staff and a Soft Landing volunteer will greet the first family quietly at the airport, then accompany them to their prearranged apartment, where a warm meal and made-up beds await. Cottrell, now Soft Landing's program director, has put together "family mentor teams" of local residents who can develop relationships with the refugees once they arrive. Lessons on navigating city buses and bike lanes are among the ways Soft Landing volunteers expect to help, in addition to introducing the new arrivals to Missoula culture.
"We're encouraging [volunteers] to take them to the farmers market, take them to the local park so they know where it is, invite them to the homecoming parade, and hopefully form a long-term relationship where they can be a go-to person," Cottrell says.
Cottrell says more than 130 people have already signed up to volunteer—about 30 more than the number of refugees the IRC expects to resettle in Missoula over the next year.