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Missoula’s refugee resettlement program turns 3 as Trump slashes admissions

Missoulians gathered on North Higgins Avenue in 2016 to support the opening of a resettlement office for refugees. The International Rescue Committee opened as a result, and it celebrated its third anniversary in Missoula this week. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

More than 1,000 people marched through the downtown streets in 2016 to support a local movement to open a refugee resettlement office in Missoula. The world was facing a humanitarian crisis, and Missoula wanted to play a part in the solution.

Mission accomplished.

The International Rescue Committee celebrated its third anniversary in Missoula this week. Since opening in 2016, more than 350 families have resettled in the Garden City, adding fuel to the local economy and diversity to the community fabric.

“When we reflect back on our three years, we’re just really grateful that we’ve been able to resettle families who are at risk here to Missoula,” said Jen Barile, the organization’s resettlement director in Missoula. “Considering that refugee resettlement numbers have been drastically reduced during the three years we’ve been open, we feel really lucky and honored to still remain open and resettle families.”

Under the waning years of the Obama administration, refugee admissions to the U.S. sat at 110,000 a year. This fiscal year, however, the Trump administration has cut that number to just 30,000.

The drastic reduction has forced other resettlement offices to close, especially those in larger cities with more than one program. But the IRC office in Missoula remains strong and has resettled 95 refugees this fiscal year.

“Our agreement with the State Department to resettle refugees in Missoula this fiscal year is 100 people,” said Barile. “We have some more families coming in September at the end of the fiscal year, so we’ll reach our number of 100 arrivals in Missoula this year. We’re really lucky we’re able to do that.”

The Trump administration is now considering a literal shutdown of refugee admissions by cutting the number to zero next year. The presidential determination for resettlement numbers takes place annually in early October.

Advocates of the U.S. resettlement program, which includes the Department of Defense, fear that cutting admissions even more would “completely decimate” the nation’s ability to resettle refugees, including those who risked their lives aiding U.S. forces in foreign conflicts.

“It’s unfortunate the number of refugee admissions to the U.S. are being reduced when the global humanitarian need is so high,” Barile said. “We know the U.S. refugee admissions program is a safe, secure program that’s saving lives.”

The nation’s nine resettlement programs, along with service organizations, churches and community members, are urging supporters to ask Congress to defend the program.

At least one bill has been introduced in Congress to restore admissions to more traditional levels.

“There was a bill introduced in Congress call the Grace Act,” Barile said. “It’s asking the administration to set the minimum refugee admissions at 95,000 a year. That’s the historical average of annual refugee admissions since the program began in 1980.”

Sahar Alzaidi, a refugee from Iraq, and Ghalia Almasra, a refugee from Syria, stand in the kitchen of the Top Hat in Missoula during a “Taste of the Middle East” event hosted by Soft Landing in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

While the IRC navigates the political winds to provide sanctuary and new life to the refugees it supports, those behind the program are delighted by its success over the past three years.

The program has taken 350 people from harm’s way and given them new life in Missoula. They’ve enrolled their children in school, opened new businesses, and most find work within three to four months after arriving.

“We’re finally building a community of refugees here, and that took awhile,” Barile said. “The families are now able to support one another. That’s a huge success, having refugee families feel like there’s a sense of community here. It’s been a huge community effort.”

That effort includes local volunteers, employers, educators and more. The program has added interpretation services to key agencies, including schools and the Missoula Job Service.

“Everyone has chipped to make sure refugees can be served equally to non refugees in Missoula,” said Barile. “We’ve done a lot of work over the past three years to really put the infrastructure in place to make sure interpretation services are provided at agencies where it’s required.

“If a parent has a question about their children, they can call the school district and have a conversation. They can work with the job service for employment and be served equally with interpretation.”

The program’s success is evident across the city, from it’s growing diversity to its cultural riches. Congolese refugees Hategeka Gilbert and Joel Kambale recently launched the Universal Revival Church. Iraqi refugees Ammar Omar and Wisam Raheem opened Kamoon Arabian Cuisin earlier this year.

Some have staged community plays while others have earned promotions at work.

“They’re becoming a fabric of Missoula and taking on new leadership roles, whether it’s employment or starting a congregation,” Barile said. “They’re really contributing to the diversity of Missoula. We hear all the time from our volunteers or from community members how happy they are that there’s more diversity and their children can learn about other cultures in school.”

Despite the political headwinds under the Trump administration, Barile still enjoys her work.

“I’ve been a social worker in Missoula for 15-plus years, and there’s just so much that I learn from the families we’re serving,” she said. “There’s so much to learn from people who are so resilient and been through so much.”