Billings donations destined for refugees in Missoula

Refuge

Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

At a rally in Missoula earlier this year, residents showed their support for welcoming international refugees into their community.

If weather conditions are favorable this weekend, Jane Moses hopes to make another attempt to deliver donations for international refugees in Missoula.

Moses and her daughter Libby made their first attempt on Tuesday and got as far as Livingston, where a stretch of Interstate 90 was closed because of high winds. They detoured through Livingston and looked into what lay ahead.

“The road reports west of Livingston were just not something I wanted to mess with,” Moses said.

Her Toyota Highlander is still full of goods donated by other Billings residents—three car seats, a microwave oven, 10 big bags full of warm clothes and a box of boots, jackets and down vests.

“So I’m just looking for another two-day window when I can drive back,” Moses said.

The donations are intended for Soft Landing, a nonprofit organization that has helped open Missoula’s doors to those fleeing war and violence in other parts of the world.

Over the past few months, 11 families—varying in size from three to six people—have arrived in Missoula. The first to arrive came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others have come from Iraq and Eritrea, located on the Horn of Africa. Most recently, they’ve come from Ethiopia.

Mary Poole, director of Soft Landing, said those now established in Missoula have children attending Missoula County Public Schools. One girl, who didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived, is now reading full English sentences from a book.

“Missoula County Public Schools has been doing such an amazing job,” Poole said. “We meet with them every six weeks to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

Poole said the families are settling into their new surroundings and have been warmly received by the community. They’ve found housing, been outfitted with winter clothing and are working to integrate into the community.

While the effort to accommodate the refugees hasn’t come without controversy, Poole said community donations have helped ease the process. That, she added, makes Moses’ effort that much more significant.

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“From the beginning, we definitely had support from pockets throughout the state, but we’re seeing that support grow in some of the larger Montana cities,” Poole said. “Those donations mean everything. We’re such a small organization and everything counts for us. We have a pretty barren budget that we use to support our services.”

Moses’ decision to help was motivated by a basic consideration.

“We have so much in this country and people being driven out of their countries from war have nothing,” said Moses. “It seems simple to me.”

Moses learned of Soft Landing through an acquaintance in Billings, who recommended she contact the International Rescue Committee. Soft Landing lobbied the IRC to consider opening an office in Missoula, which it did in August after vetting the city as a potential location for one of its nine national offices.

Because Billings hasn’t opened its doors to refugees, Moses set her sights on Missoula.

“A lot of people in Billings wanted to donate,” said Moses. “I mentioned something at the First Congregational Church and put a flier up at The Annex coffee shop. We’re just trying to support them.”

Her efforts also got a boost on social media networks in Billings. Wednesday morning at the YMCA, an acquaintance gave Moses $60 for the cause, which she will deliver along with a $100 check Moses wrote to Soft Landing.

Moses also got in touch with Eric Basye, director of the nonprofit Community Leadership and Development Inc. As we reported last spring, the CLDI worked with 10 Billings churches to prepare “welcome kits” that were delivered to World Relief in Spokane, Wash., a city that had pledged to take in 500-plus refugees this year.

World Relief has guidelines for creating five kits—household, cleaning, child and baby supply, kitchen and bathroom kits. It asks that each collection of supplies be packed in a large plastic bin that can also be used by refugee families.

Basye said on Wednesday that CLDI also delivered 25 welcome kits to Soft Landing in Missoula this fall, and next week he plans to talk with Poole about the possibility of Billings also becoming a host city for refugees.

After talking with Moses, Basye gave her a bathroom kit to deliver with the other donations she had gathered.

While Missoula becomes more diverse, Montana legislators have introduced nearly a dozen bills targeting refugees and immigration. Scheduled for the upcoming session, they include a measure that would permit cities and towns to place a moratorium on resettlement in their communities.

In Missoula, both the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners have approved the local resettlement efforts and, like many local residents, they’ve placed their full support behind the IRC and Soft Landing.

Moses admits that’s not the case in Billings.

“We couldn’t even pass a nondiscrimination ordinance,” she said. “Politically, we’re a little behind Missoula. I guess we’re more conservative, but I think it’s an issue of fear and a lack of information.”

Editor’s note: Substantial portions of this article originally appeared in a story Martin Kidston wrote for Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper.

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