Missoula refugee efforts make BBC headlines

Mary Poole, left, of Soft Landing Missoula marched with refugee supporters through downtown Missoula in a spring rally. Poole appeared with several other local figures in a British Broadcasting Corporation report on the refugee debate in western Montana. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

When Matthew Danzico heard an interview on Public Radio International regarding the debate over refugees in western Montana, he opted to take a closer look on behalf of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Weeks later, he landed in Missoula and set out to interview several Montanans central to the debate, including Mary Poole of Soft Landing Missoula, Missoula Mayor John Engen, and Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows.

His report posted to the BBC’s “U.S. and Canada” section on Thursday afternoon.

“The fact that the refugees hadn’t arrived yet seemed like a very visual story, and one I thought our international audience would find interesting,” Danzico said on Thursday, speaking over the phone hours after his report emerged as one of the BBC’s most viewed stories.

“Our audience in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe and around the globe, has been following various stories on refugees and their migration,” he added. “We have not heard about what middle America thought or is doing about the refugee crisis.”

As it turns out, middle America – at least in Missoula – is doing quite a bit.

After several months of local debate, the International Rescue Committee has agreed to resettle roughly 100 refugees a year in Missoula. The organization announced last month that the refugees would likely originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, though that hasn’t been finalized.

In the BBC report, Mary Poole recounted the reasons she helped launch Soft Landing Missoula last year. The local effort was sparked by images of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian child who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing to Europe with his family. Members of Soft Landing knew they couldn’t sit idly by and let others solve an international crisis.

Missoula may be isolated, they’ve said before, but it’s still part of the global community.

“I hope Missoula can send a message that refugees aren’t forgotten,” Poole said Thursday after viewing the BBC report. “There are a lot of people that really want to help. The outpouring of support we’ve gotten has been amazing – overwhelming at times in how many people want to help refugees.”

That message wasn’t unanimous in Danzico’s report. While Poole remains strong in her desire to resettle refugees in Missoula, far away from war and famine, Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows relayed a different message to BBC’s international audience.

Burrows told Danzico that Montana is isolated from the rest of the world, and if supporters want to bring refugees to the state, they should “give us a guarantee they won’t pose a threat to our communities.”

“Because Missoula receives 100 refugees doesn’t mean Missoula is going to receive those impacts,” Burrows stated in the report. “We’re 95 percent Caucasian, and I think it’s a culture shock when you see something outside that norm, and I just don’t know that it’s a safe place to bring in refugees.”

Danzico, who’s now back in Los Angeles, said he grew up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town where the politics aren’t unlike those in Ravalli County. He understands both sides of the debate and views Montana’s politics as complicated mix of red and blue.

“I think what the audience gets the sense of, and what I got a sense of is that Missoula, like other liberal hubs around America, is a blue dot sitting in a sea of red,” Danzico said. “It’s a hyper-liberal city sitting in a somewhat conservative state. The politics are just different.”

Matt Danzico

Danzico said the report he submitted was longer than what posted and included a back-and-forth dialogue between Burrows and Missoula Mayor John Engen. That part of the story was cut by Danzico’s editors in London.

But in the report, Engen does summarized what Danzico observed during his time in the state, saying there’s an opportunity for Missoula to be inclusive and helpful in solving an international crisis, despite the resistance of some.

“To assume that this organization (Soft Landing) has an obligation to visit a neighboring county to have a conversation about what it may or may not be doing, I think that’s a big ask,” Engen said in the report. “I think the debate here is largely a product of the divide between rural Montana and urban Montana. I think it reflects a concern that things are changing.”

Danzico said he’s seen similar politics in Colorado, particularly as they relate to Boulder and the rest of the state. He understands Engen’s point of view, as well as that of Burrows. How he feels about the two communities from a political standpoint he wouldn’t say.

“Despite working for the BBC and living in London for a while, I’m from coal-mining country and Hamilton isn’t that far away culturally from the town I grew up in,” Danzico said. “I know conservative areas of America fairly well. It wasn’t surprising. I think both sides had valid concerns and valid points.”

While the debate continues in western Montana, Poole said Soft Landing continues to gain supporters looking to help incoming refugees acclimatize to their new home. The city has a seldom-mentioned international community and a long list of seasoned travelers looking to help, she noted.

Soft Landing will provide the IRC with its list of volunteers and continue its community outreach and education, hoping to bridge the gap between those opposed to resettlement and the refugees themselves.

“I think part of it is living in a somewhat isolated place,” Poole said. “We don’t have these same outlets that people in larger cities might have interacting with people from all over the world. I would almost say there’s a hunger here to have these multicultural experiences, and to feel like they’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

Danzico, too, hopes to follow up with a story once the refugees settle in.

“We’ve already been talking about that possibility,” he said. “I would be interested in how they are adopted into the community. In both Missoula proper and the surrounding communities, I think they’ll be welcomed with open arms. I think it will be a wonderful cultural exchange that will open people’s eyes and minds on both sides of the fence.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com