International Rescue Committee turning 4 in Missoula; optimistic despite national challenges

Jen Barile, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, and Nolasque Balitebya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, listen to the resettlement hearing with Missoula County commissioners last year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

These days, the staff of the International Rescue Committee in Missoula — Montana’s only refugee resettlement agency — holds their meetings in Bonner Park, complete with socially distanced lawn chairs and assorted pastries.

There, they catch up on their clients by throwing out last names and brainstorming action plans to help them: a Zoom meeting check in, an application to the YMCA’s summer camp, or an appointment with the Missoula Job Service, to name a few.

But while the IRC is skilled at strategizing ways to support its mostly Congolese, Eritrean and Iraqi clientele in their transition to American life, larger questions remain. How long will the program last, and how much more of this can it survive?

For IRC Missoula, this isn’t hyperbolic. The combination of an immigration ban for the foreseeable future and the United States’ lowest refugee quota since the Refugee Act of 1980 means very few refugees are allowed entry. If hardly any refugees can be resettled, very few resettlement agencies can stay afloat — and even if the admission quota rises under a different administration, the necessary infrastructure may no longer exist.

On the other hand, IRC Missoula has survived various threats to its viability. In November 2019, for example, Resettlement Director Jen Barile navigated a divisive and ill-defined executive order requiring consent from governors and local leaders to receive federal funding.

In the past few years, IRC Missoula has resettled approximately 300 refugees. This fiscal year, the State Department allocated only 18 clients for resettlement. Essentially, IRC Missoula has been adaptable to change since its opening in 2016, not by choice but rather by necessity, Barile said. The pandemic has been no exception.

“The IRC team has really been stepping up, especially when COVID first hit and people were starting to get laid off left and right,” said Barile. “There was a lot of work involved on a lot of different levels. Just explaining to refugee families what unemployment is and the difference between regular unemployment and pandemic unemployment.”

A refugee family settles in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

It was a busy few months as many clients without access to accumulated savings filed and waited for unemployment. According to Barile, those who arrived within the year didn’t have tax returns, and consequently were ineligible to receive stimulus money.

Others arrived just before lockdown, eliminating the vast majority of job prospects. And while all new arrivals receive funding to help them acclimate, pay the first few months of rent, and afford groceries while they seek employment, these funds quickly dissipated.

As such, the IRC has been forced to get creative with their solutions: creating a COVID-19 emergency fund, applying for state funding and relying on relationships with community partners, such as Catalyst and Imagine Nation Brewing’s PPE assembly program.

This layered support system, in conjunction with the early reopening of businesses across Missoula, has paid off. None of the IRC’s clients had to default on rent payments, 16 clients have been hired since April, and a very low percentage of those eligible for employment are currently unemployed, said Employment Specialist Nick Smith.

On the other hand, many refugees hold jobs as essential workers within the Missoula community. Kasse Lumona, an employee at St. Patrick Hospital and an IRC client, expressed his fear and desire to protect his community in an IRC Missoula announcement.

“Of course I am worried,” said Lumona. “Of course I am scared. But it is my job, and I love my job, and I love Missoula. It is my home.”

Dozens of other refugees in Missoula are spread out among the sectors defined as essential work — as caregivers to adults with disabilities, cashiers in grocery stores and food distribution centers, bus drivers and first responders.

The reality is that illness, especially pandemics, are universal issues. The IRC has had to focus on ensuring clients know their rights as essential workers.

“Some of that information was making sure that they had the proper PPE, that their employers were providing it, and that they understood that this was a choice — that they did not have to work in an environment where they are at risk,” Barile said.

Yet Barile acknowledged that for many, it’s a matter of putting your health at risk by working or putting your family’s health at risk by living without a guaranteed income.

And while the IRC focuses on crafting these financial support systems, it also aids clients in everyday, individual emergencies, like paying a phone bill or finding childcare. Most of these interactions occur face-to-face in the IRC office, but like most everywhere else, IRC has shifted toward digital platforms like Zoom, call, and text, a challenge considering their clients’ range of digital literacy skills.

“One of the really cool things that actually happened before COVID is that the national IRC network got a grant for laptops that have a special operating system. And it’s for people who maybe have lower digital literacy skills,” Barile said.

“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “The hard drive itself has encyclopedias, cooking books, know your rights, all in their own language,” Smith said.

Demonstrators gathered in Missoula in 2016 to advocate for refugee resettlement in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Smith and IRC Swahili Interpreter Nolasque Balitebya even filmed a personalized Zoom tutorial for clients, especially significant now that the Lifelong Learning Center is using the platform for their ESL classes. Otherwise, IRC has focused on ensuring that all clients have Wi-Fi access in their homes, and in the future, the organization plans on introducing a digital literacy program for all new clients, Barile said.

In this sense, the pandemic has given refugees in Missoula greater access to online learning and career opportunities. But it has also made it difficult for new arrivals to connect with their community and acclimate to their new lives.

“How do you welcome a new refugee or refugee family to Missoula when we’re on lockdown and they have to quarantine for 14 days?” Barile said.

Again, IRC got creative. There were daily Zoom calls throughout quarantine, and families were linked with volunteer mentors, Lead Caseworker Jesse Littman said.

Yet for all these welcoming efforts, only 10 refugees have been resettled in Missoula since COVID struck.

“Because of COVID, refugee arrivals have been paused, and of course, the administration reduced the number to 18,000, which isn’t too much, so that’s been hard. It’s been hard for our office and for the families here,” Barile said.

Barile is referring to the Presidential Determination — the decision that takes place each October wherein the president determines the maximum number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States the following fiscal year. In the last year of the Obama administration, it was 85,000. It has decreased markedly every year since.

“We really are just asking people to advocate for higher refugee admissions numbers,” Barile said.

There are currently 26 million refugees and 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, according to the UNHCR. Many refugees are forced to leave family members behind once they are approved for resettlement. Under normal circumstances, these loved ones would have a better chance at being approved once their relative is settled in the United States. But now that admissions are paused, millions of refugees are crowded into understaffed and under sourced refugee camps, wherein many facilities are shared and tents are in close proximity.

According to Barile, community safety is of the utmost importance, and no one should travel if it decreases global safety. Yet notably, refugees make up 29% of doctors born outside the country.

In April, a handful of states authorized foreign medical licenses to allow refugees to practice. While international travel was dangerous at the beginning of the pandemic due to a lack of information and precautions, recent evidence suggests that travel bans do not work to stop the spread of COVID-19, Hans Van de Weerd, IRC international’s vice president of resettlement wrote in a statement against Trump’s immigration ban.

“We need tests, not bans,” he concluded.

And while much of IRC’s functioning is contingent on the October admission quota, they haven’t stopped planning for the future. The nonprofit plans on launching a financial coaching program in partnership with Clearwater Credit Union to teach clients about the United States’ banking system and help refugees realize their financial goals — “whether it’s to buy a house, get a loan for a vehicle, or just save money,” Barile said.

They’re also introducing a Refugee Advisory Council to guide IRC’s decisions in what support they provide and how they provide it. Barile plans on creating an advisory council where men and women are equally represented, as well as including refugee youth.

“It’s a way for people to feel empowered. They have a say in the decisions that are affecting them,” she said.

Resettling fewer clients has allowed for a renewed focus on projects the IRC has always hoped to carry out.

“During COVID we’ve actually ramped up our development efforts,” Barile said.

The fourth anniversary of IRC Missoula’s 21st century resettlement efforts is on August 24th. They’ve had to cancel their annual party in Bonner Park, but Barile still considers it a cause for celebration.

“I was just reflecting on our four years, and this office opened right before Trump got elected, and has been open throughout the administration. And we’re still here, we’re still resettling refugees, we’re still supporting refugee families that are here. So that’s a huge success and something to celebrate,” Barile said.

Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She can be reached at agp2147@barnard.edu