Missoula joins national “welcoming cities” campaign on refugees

Refugee children, displaced by continued fighting in north Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), queue for food in the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town, 521 km (324 miles) southwest of Uganda's capital Kampala, July 13, 2012. REUTERS/James Akena
Refugee children, displaced by continued fighting in north Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), queue for food in the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town, 521 km (324 miles) southwest of Uganda’s capital Kampala, July 13, 2012. REUTERS/James Akena

By Martin Kidston

Saying that all people are deserving of dignity and basic human rights, the city of Missoula joined the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign on Wednesday, adopting a resolution proclaiming its support for the national movement.

The City Council’s Committee of the Whole approved the resolution on an 11-1 vote, doing so less than a week after Missoula welcomed its first refugee family from east Africa. The family’s four children were born in a refugee camp, according to information released last week by the International Rescue Committee.

“You look on TV and see these people suffering, and I don’t know how anyone can look at that and then deny them the chance to come here,” said Ward 4 council member John Wilkins. “I got a lot of nasty emails when I supported this before, and I want those people to look in the mirror.”

The resolution recognizes Missoula as a welcoming city with a history of resettling Hmong refugees in the past. The city’s population is expected to grow by 20,000 residents over the next two decades and can responsibly include people fleeing violence.

The resolution also state’s that Missoula is committed to doing its part to help resolve what’s argued to be the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War, with more than 16 million people displaced worldwide by war and conflict.

For Ward 1 council member Heidi West, joining the national movement had special meaning.

“I lived in Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union and saw a lot of refugees come through my childhood community,” said West. “The city I grew up in didn’t receive any refugees because the response was overwhelmingly negative. Everyone deserves to have dignity and a place to live and grow up. This says a lot for our community, that we’re starting this and housing our first family.”

Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells disagreed and cast the one dissenting vote opposing the measure over vetting concerns. However, he opted not to remove the resolution from Monday night’s consent agenda.

Wells said his last girlfriend was a practicing Muslim from Turkey whose parents immigrated to France as refugees. Despite the relationship, he said, he couldn’t support the resolution joining Missoula to the national coalition of welcoming cities.

“What I don’t like about this resolution is that it somehow suggests that if you don’t support it, you’re a bigot, a racist or a xenophobe,” he said. “I will not be fox-holed into voting for something that makes me nervous just because someone might call me a racist. I’ve dated more ethnic girls than I have white girls, so get over it.”

Mary Poole, who co-founded Soft Landing Missoula and has emerged as the organization’s spokesperson, said more than 50 U.S. cities have joined the campaign to become a welcoming city since the White House Task Force on New Americans was founded last September.

Soft Landing began working with the International Rescue Committee at that time to open Missoula to global refugees. Over the next year, the organization is expected to resettle roughly 100 east Africans in Missoula.

The first family arrived last week, and while the IRC’s Missoula director hasn’t responded to emails asking about the family’s well being or care, she told another news outlet that the family of six has been placed in temporary housing.

“If there’s a community ready for this, it’s Missoula,” said Poole. “Since the arrival of our first family, our volunteer list has grown from a very hearty 100 people to over 200 people interested in volunteering. The world is hearing us.”

Over the next 20 years, Poole told the committee, immigrants and their children will account for 85 percent of new growth in the U.S. labor force. Immigrant entrepreneurs account for 28 percent of all new businesses and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, she added.

Growing local diversity brings both economic and cultural rewards, she said.

“This is about creating opportunity for immigrants and their children, and when we do this, we create opportunities for us all,” said Poole. “We must also prepare our own children to thrive in this increasingly global world.”

By becoming a welcoming city, Poole said, Missoula will gain access to additional private resources to serve the city’s growing immigrant population. It may also include support and resources for schools, and funding opportunities for capacity building.

“It’s important that people who support helping other people speak up, because there’s a lot of negative rhetoric out there,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “Speaking up is important by itself, and I look forward to seeing what else we can do.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com