By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Tim Buterbaugh stepped upon a makeshift soapbox at the Missoula County Courthouse and warned the gathering crowd of the dangers facing America. While not all refugees entering the U.S. have violence in mind, he said, some of them do.
And that, the Whitehall resident cautioned, was more than enough.
“There are other nations trying to kill us,” Buterbaugh said. “These refugees coming in may not be, but a lot of them support it. It may be only five percent of them, but five percent is all you need.”
Buterbaugh turned to social media to organize Monday’s rally, hoping to counter a local group’s efforts to reopen a refugee resettlement office in Missoula.
Known as Soft Landing Missoula, the group is working with the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. State Department to establish the office, leaving Wyoming as the only other state in the nation without a refugee center.
But those who gathered on the courthouse lawn see America through a more fearful lens, and they’re working to block the effort. They waved American flags, cited biblical passages and hoisted signs reading “refugees or terrorists” and “they rape, kill and destroy.”
“It’s the responsibility of American citizens as a whole to keep this country safe,” Buterbaugh said. “We cannot expect our government to do it. If you don’t stand up to the government, the government will run you right over.”
Karen Sherman recently resettled in Missoula after leaving Amarillo, Texas, where she enjoyed an idyllic life. That is, she said, until contractors made a business out of bringing refugees to her community.
Sherman said the result left Texans out of work, flooded classrooms with non-English speaking students, and led to a rampant increase in violent crime.
“We’re asking that these people come here who have been taught thousands of years of violence and hatred, and expecting them to assimilate to our way of life,” said Sherman. “That’s a foolish and dangerous expectation.”
Tom Wing agreed and called on protesters to unite against government leaders – along with a select number of churches looking to play a role in aiding refugees.
“I think we know who our potential enemy is, and actually it’s the voters here in Missoula that elect these idiots who want to bring these refugees here,” Wing said. “If all we do is moan about what’s happening and don’t organize to make our voices heard, then we’re just wasting our time.”
For more than a year, Americans have watched the Syrian refugee crisis play out over the television as millions flee the war-torn country. But when the media played images of a drowned child washed up on a Turkish beach, Soft Landing Missoula found its voice.
“We had the initial idea of trying to bring Syrian refugees to Missoula, but found out that wasn’t how the process worked in America,” said Mary Poole, one of the organization’s founders. “We’re working with International Rescue Committee – they’re working on an application they’ll submit on Missoula’s behalf.”
IRC is one of nine organizations authorized by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees in the U.S. Poole said Montana and Wyoming remain the only two states in the country without a resettlement office, though Missoula had an office from 1979 to 2008.
During those 29 year, IRC helped settle Hmong and eastern European refugees in Missoula. It did so without incident, Poole said.
“With Missoula’s strong history of doing this successfully in the past, it can continue to be that positive change and help shelter those fleeing war,” Poole said. “There are people out there who don’t have homes, who have lost their families right in front of their eyes. If we can rally together and provide those people safety, it’s something we should do.”
Ward 3 City Council member Emily Bentley, who also is a member of Soft Landing, agreed. What Missoula is looking to offer is far from what protesters see as “a flood” of refugees into the city, she said.
“The migration we’re seeing in Europe is very different than becoming a refugee in the U.S.,” said Bentley. “Here, it’s a two-year process, and it’s extremely difficult. The people who come to the U.S. are vetted.”
During Monday’s protest, Wing named five Missoula churches in his attack on Soft Landing and its advocates, including the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, LDS and Catholic churches.
Father Joseph Carver, a Jesuit priest and pastor at St. Xavier Parish in Missoula, took a higher road. He cited Pope Francis in asking others to “hear the pleas” of those fleeing wars, persecution and human-rights violations.
“We need to look to the example of Pope Francis, who has made concern for migrants a centerpiece of his papacy by asking that we see the dignity of all persons everywhere,” said Carver.