Food bridges cultures: Soft Landing looks to grow refugee culinary program

Family resource coordinator of Soft Landing, Greta Bates, right, and Andi Hoelzel, left, assist a Missoula refugee at the organization’s office. Soft Landing is looking for ways to expand its programming, including education and its popular food program cooked up by refugee chefs. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A critic of accepting refugees stood before City Club Missoula four years ago to urge local leaders and the federal government to block the reopening of a resettlement office.

At the same event, Mary Poole countered by urging compassion over fear. She reminded the audience that Missoula had a history of resettling refugees that dated back to the 1970s after the Vietnam War.

Poole, co-founder of Soft Landing Missoula, has persevered in the years since that community debate, and her gentle approach to difference continues to win supporters.

“The role of our organization is not to make everyone believe in what we do, but to keep that door open,” Poole told the Missoula Current. “It’s very important to us that everyone feels welcome at the table. When you spend so much time asking compassion of other people, it would be misguided not to be able to offer the same.”

On a quiet day leading into the holidays, Poole reflected on the past few years and the growth of her organization, which traces its roots to 2015.

That March, more than 1,000 people converged in downtown Missoula, believing the city could play a role in aiding the global refugee crisis. A year later, the International Rescue Committee opened an office in Missoula, and has since resettled 343 refugees in the Garden City.

The city’s new residents have helped strengthen the local economy and added to the city’s diversity. They’ve opened churches and businesses, conducted plays and integrated into a culture far different than the places they represent, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Iraq.

Desbele, top center, and Adhanet, right, fled Eritrea for a refugee camp in Ethiopia with their children before receiving status in Missoula. The family arrived in Montana in January 2018. The kids are now in school, Desbele has a job, and Adhanet cares for Selam, front, who turned 1 in August. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

“It’s been interesting to see how many misguided things you have in your own soul, just from where you grew up, and learning in the end that we really, truly are all the same,” said Poole. “Every worry I have about my own family is the same, and every joy I have about my own family is the same.”

As a new decade dawns and the refugee population welcomes a new generation, Soft Landing has its sights set on the future. In May, the first two refugee students will graduate from local high schools, and Poole sees an opportunity to help ensure they and others to follow have access to all levels of education.

She placed it among her organization’s top goals for 2020.

“We’re really trying to nail down what that’s going to look like for people, not just people graduating from college, but the younger adults who are here that have to get their high school equivalency, or parents ready for skills building,” said Poole. “Navigating that world of higher education is a huge goal of ours, again in partnership with other folks.”

Soft Landing also looks to grow its food programming – something that “shot through the roof” in 2019, according to Poole.

Over the course of its existence, the organization has helped refugees sell their goods at the farmers market, and more recently it has offered dinners provided by refugee chefs.

The latter program has been well received, and it will likely serve as the foundation for the organization’s future plans.

“Food has been an incredible avenue for refugees to feel like they’re giving back to the community,” said Poole. “When you can’t bring anything else, you still bring that knowledge and skill of cooking and your grandmother’s recipes.”

This past summer, working with a local kitchen, Soft Landing piloted a weekly meal program. Over the course of 15 weeks, nine refugee chefs each prepared a dinner. While the program wasn’t widely advertised, the international meals sold out each time.

Sahar Alzaidi, a refugee from Iraq, and Ghalia Almasra, a refugee from Syria, stand in the kitchen of the Top Hat in Missoula ahead of a “Taste of the Middle East” event hosted by Soft Landing in 2017. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

“It’s not only a way that refugees can give back and a way for the community to learn about the folks here, but it also provides enormous economic opportunity for refugees,” Poole said. “In 2019, we put over $20,000 directly into the pockets of refugee chefs by selling their food. But it’s still supplemental income, and we’d like to work toward full-time income for some folks.”

The popularity of the supper club has Soft Landing exploring the program’s next iteration. It could see the organization expand into catering or, in the very least, open a bakery filled with international treats.

Food helps bridge cultures, and Poole believes it could provide income to refugee who possess culinary skills.

“It’s always our goal at the center to provide full-time employment,” Poole said. “The response we’ve received from the community around food has been incredible. It’s exciting to think that we could grow into an organization that could provide solid, full-time employment for a couple people.

Though the future of resettlement remains in question as the Trump administration cuts the number of admissions to historic lows, Poole remains optimistic. The resettlement effort in Missoula has expanded the city’s diversity, and it has lifted today’s students toward a rich and more accepting future.

“Our children now get to grow up with some of that diversity, not just the visual diversity but diversity of experience,” she said. “Having people with diverse experiences in our community makes that real. It’s not something that happens to others, but something that happens to all of us.”