Billings woman, turned back by winter storm, plans to support Missoula refugee efforts

Mary Poole, left, led a march through downtown last year as Soft Landing sought to help international refugees relocate to Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

With $100 in her pocket, Jane Moses began her trip from Billings to Missoula on Tuesday, intent on making a donation to Soft Landing to support the growing number of international refugees who have settled in the city.

Moses made it as far as Livingston before a winter storm forced her back to the Magic City. She intends to mail her contribution to Missoula rather than deliver it by hand, though the sentiment remains the same.

Boil it down and Moses, like a growing number of Montanans, is eager to help the organization that has opened Missoula’s doors to those fleeing war and violence in other parts of the world.

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

Over the past few months, 11 families have arrived in Missoula. They vary in size, from a family of three to a family of seven. 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 the Garden City 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,” said Poole. “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.

“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 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.”

While Missoula becomes more diverse, a number of 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 non-discrimination 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.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com