With a refugee population firmly established, and in a nod of confidence, Missoula Federal Credit Union put its money behind its values on Wednesday night, donating $20,000 to Soft Landing Missoula and the International Rescue Committee.

Joined by members of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, credit union president and CEO Jack Lawson praised Missoula's resettlement efforts, saying financial institutions hold great sway over today's social and economic outcomes and must place good over profit.

“We can choose to pursue explicitly positive and sustainable social, economic and environmental change, or pursue profits, which is relatively simple, and just let the chips fall where they may,” Lawson said. “We seek to empower people over profit, and we choose to include all walks of life in our work.”

The International Rescue Committee reopened Missoula's resettlement office in 2016. Since then, the city has welcomed around 240 refugees from four different countries, including Iraq and Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea.

Since the program began, Missoula Federal has emerged as a partner in the city's resettlement efforts, offering financial literacy to help new arrivals navigate the U.S. banking system and build credit, given that many come with no credit history.

That effort helped one refugee family purchase a car to get to work and shuttle children to school. Other programs, such as tax assistance from the University of Montana's College of Business, and computer training through the Lifelong Learning Center, have also helped new arrivals build a financial future.

“We're really doing all those things and I think it's making the credit union a better place, not just for the refugee community, but for all Missoulians,” Lawson said. “I think our schools are richer places, our farmers markets are better markets, and even our credit union has increased its capacity to serve people.”

Missoula Federal Credit Union President and CEO Jack Lawson praised Missoula's resettlement efforts, and said financial institutions must place good over profit. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Missoula Federal Credit Union President and CEO Jack Lawson praised Missoula's resettlement efforts, and said financial institutions must place good over profit. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

That community effort hasn't gone unnoticed by those who work daily with the refugee population, including Patrick Poulin, acting director of the International Rescue Committee's Pacific West region.

As Poulin mingled with the evening crowd, including Missoula County commissioners, Mayor John Engen, members of the City Council and community advocates, he stepped aside to discuss the role Missoula has played in the larger effort to resettle the planet's 24 million refugees.

While the numbers may be small in Missoula when compared to the greater need, Poulin said, the city has emerged as a model of success.

“To have refugees come to a new place like this and be so successful speaks to both the community, the partnerships like the credit union, and the volunteer base,” Poulin said. “It's like that in some places, but not everywhere, and usually we try to set resettlement offices in communities that want refugees and can serve them. Missoula really stands out.”

The Pacific West region includes 13 offices spread across Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho and Utah. Montana's only office is located in Missoula, which received 115 refugees in Fiscal Year 2018.

Poulin anticipates another 120 refugees to arrive in Missoula this fiscal year, which began in October. That's despite the Trump administration's efforts to slow the number of refugees who are accepted annually into the U.S.

“This year, nationally, we only were able to help just under 23,000 refugees compared to two years ago, where 85,000 refugees were helped by the U.S.," Poulin said. “There's over 24 million refugees in the world right now, and it's really disappointing to see it going in the wrong direction. But we're hoping things will improve soon.”

The diversity present at Wednesday night's event could foretell the city's future and, for many, it's a welcome one. For those who are new to the community, the chance for a fresh start is equally welcome, though it's not taken for granted.

Gloria Musehenu and his wife, Lisa Kabamb, arrived in Missoula from the Congo. People here are friendly, they said, and the city is a “wonderful” place to be. But there are challenges, too, from the Montana weather to the family's lack of transportation and laying financial roots.

“When anyone comes to a new place, what you expect isn't what you get,” said Musehenu. “But you get to be flexible and you get to know how things happen, how things work, so you get used to it. Being a part of the community makes it much easier.”

Already, Lawson said, the credit union strives for transparency, from its strategic plan to its philosophy on compensation. So too does it look to effect positive social and economic outcomes across the community.

“Some banks – credit unions even – pursue profit and don't think so much about the outcomes and impact of the work they're doing,” Lawson said. “We work in the other direction.”