It’s hard to say how most Montanans feel about refugees, but at least one refugee is crazy about Montana.
And why not? When Wilmot Collins first came here, landing at the Helena airport in February 1994, there was a “Welcome home, Wilmot” banner hanging in the terminal. That was an amazing moment — but so was seeing lightly dressed people at the airport despite an outside temperature of 32 degrees.
“I literally saw people with shorts,” he said. “That just blew me away.”
It is safe to say that he has acclimated to his adopted home. Last fall, he was elected mayor of Helena, defeating the four-term incumbent by a comfortable margin. His high profile since then has made it easier to pursue another passion of his — serving as an advocate for refugees and other immigrants.
He brought his powerful life story to Billings on Friday, where he was one of five speakers in an all-day forum sponsored by Billings Sanctuary Rising. The forum, “Strangers to Neighbors: Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees to Our Community,” attracted about 40 people to the Community Room of the Billings Public Library.
Speaking at the afternoon session before a presentation by Mary Poole, director of Soft Landing Missoula, Collins began by giving a brief history of Liberia, where he was born in 1963. Founded as a settlement for freed slaves and free-born blacks by the American Colonization Society, Liberia was Africa’s first independent nation, Collins said.
With strong cultural and economic ties to the United States, it was also the most peaceful country in Africa for most of its history. But when the leader of Liberia established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1979, Collins said, he was assassinated six months later — most likely by American military advisers — and the military took over the country.
“Things went down the drain fast,” Collins said. There was misrule, economic collapse and two civil wars. Collins lost two younger brothers in the first civil war, one killed by government troops, the other by rebels. Collins and his wife and his sister fled Liberia during that first war.
He told a short story to give some idea of the suffering he and his countrymen endured. Before becoming refugees, he said, he and his wife and mother, having had nothing to eat for days, ventured out from the safety of their home to look for food. The found nothing — until chancing upon a tube of Pepsodent toothpaste.
They passed it back and forth until it was gone. “Man, that is so delicious,” he said, remembering the repast.
At the last checkpoint on the way home, a soldier asked them some questions and then casually told them, “I want you to know you are very lucky today. I am done killing for today.”
He and his wife and sister waited in line for three days to get on the frightfully cramped ship that took them from Liberia to Ghana. By the time they got there, Collins said, he hadn’t eaten for a week and had lost 80 pounds. His wife, Maddie, at least, had an out.
She had been a foreign exchange student in Helena during high school, and in fact was a classmate of Steve Bullock, now the Montana governor. Her host family from those days helped her obtain a nursing scholarship from Carroll College in Helena, but even then she was able to go to Montana only thanks to the determined efforts of then-U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Montana.
“I love this guy to death,” Collins said of Williams.
They found out just before Maddie left for the United States that she was pregnant with their first child. If anyone tells you it’s easy to enter the United States as a refugee, Collins said, don’t believe it. Even with a wife and a daughter (a U.S. citizen because she was born here) living in Helena, it took two years and seven months of intense vetting before Collins was able to join them, and to finally meet his daughter.
In the meantime he had been back to Liberia and fled the country again, this time to Ivory Coast. He acknowledges how fortunate he was to have been helped by so many good people and to have been guided, as he believes, by the hand of providence.
And he feels fortunate to have ended up in Helena. When he first arrived, he said, he wasn’t working, so he spent his days walking around town. One day, on a whim, he entered the Capitol building and strolled into the governor’s office, where Gov. Marc Racicot almost immediately introduced himself.
After hearing his story and learning that he had been a teacher in Liberia, Racicot and an aide advised him to apply for a job as a counselor at the Intermountain Children’s Home, and to use them as references. Collins got the job, and would later work for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, specializing in child protection.
He is also a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve. His daughter is in the Navy and his son recently graduated from the University of Montana. His mother was able to leave Liberia, too, and lives with Collins’ sister in Minneapolis.
There have been some trials in Helena. Early on, someone sprayed “KKK” and “Go back to Africa” on his house. But rather than dwell on that, Collins prefers to tell about how his neighbors, while he was reporting the incident to the police, began scrubbing the graffiti off his house.
And despite his generally positive, upbeat message, Collins said there are things happening in the United States that trouble him.
Above all, he said, “We don’t care about the truth anymore, and that hurts.” He said few people take the trouble to distinguish between refugees, who are carefully, thoroughly vetted, and other types of immigrants. People also believe that refugees come here to take advantage of government handouts and private charities.
“I’ve been here 24 years and I’m still waiting for my free stuff,” he said. He said most refugees are like him, and if given opportunities to work and prosper, they will take them. It is important to have more forums like the one in Billings, he said, where people learn the truth.
“This is the only way you’ll get the facts,” he said, “and I hope you don’t keep the facts to yourself.”
Poole, for her part, was also upbeat, or “rosy” as she put it. That is by choice, because despite all the abuse and hatred that have been aimed at her and her agency, Soft Landing Missoula, she has been encouraged by the progress they’ve made, the lives they have changed.
Soft Landing does not itself resettle refugees. There are only nine nonprofit organizations in the country registered with the United Nations to resettle refugees. The agency doing so in Missoula is the International Rescue Committee, which opened an office at the request of Poole and others who established Soft Landing in 2016.
Since then, about 45 families, comprising 170 individuals, have been resettled in Missoula. They have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria and Eritrea.
Poole said she was inspired to start Soft Landing by having seen the famous photo of the Syrian child who died off the coast of Turkey. She was nursing her own infant at the time and felt an overwhelming desire to help.
She and the friends who started the agency assumed there were protocols in place, guidelines to follow, lots of help available. There was not, which meant they had to build an organization almost from scratch, by trial and error. Their slogan says it all: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
She said the accepted definition of a refugee is a person who has fled his or her home due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
There are now about 65 people in the world displaced by war and conflict, she said, most of them internally displaced, meaning they are still in their home country. About 20 million refugees are registered with U.N. and only about 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled to a third country — like Maddie Collins, who went first to Ghana and then to the United States.
The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years, which is why so many people travel on their own to countries like Turkey, Germany, France and Italy, where they seek asylum, as opposed to following the path of a registered refugee.
The IRC uses a combination of government funds and private donations to resettle refugees. Soft Landing Missoula provides services that the IRC does not, including finding one-on-one tutors for refugee children, offering adult driver’s education, sponsoring supper clubs and a soccer tournament, organizing farmers’ markets and putting together self-sufficiency projects.
Soft Landing is volunteer-driven, and it gets help from a “huge number” of community partners, Poole said.
“There has to be a light in the darkness,” Poole said. “That’s who we can be.”
There were also three speakers at the morning session. Your Last Best News correspondent was unable to cover their presentations. They were:
♦ Jordan Dyrdahl-Roberts, who quit his job with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry after being asked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to collect data on undocumented people.
♦ Randall Caudle, an immigration lawyer from Missoula, who talked about “Knowing your rights.”
♦ Claudia Stephens, with the Montana Migrant Council, who talked about the importance of migrant labor to the local food supply.
Some of those who spoke at the end of the day urged people to support a GoFundMe page set up by a friend of Dyrdahl-Roberts, to tide him over while he looks for a new job.
At the next meeting of Billings Sanctuary Rising, set for Monday at noon on the second floor of the library, the Rev. Mike Mulberry, will be talking about the roots of immigration.