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‘You enrich our culture:’ Missoula recognizes World Refugee Day

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

The City of Missoula took a pause during Monday night’s council meeting to recognize World Refugee Day and to praise the positive impacts of the city’s growing refugee population.

Soft Landing Missoula, founded by Mary Poole, began with a march down Higgins Avenue in 2015 during the war in Syria, which resulted in a stream of displaced refugees. The effort prompted the International Rescue Committee to open a resettlement office in Missoula, where it has operated since 2016.

“Refugees bring more than they carry,” said Sarah Howerton, the development coordinator with the IRC office in Missoula. “It’s traditions, experiences and skills. You’ve seen that manifest itself here in our city.”

Since 2016, the IRC with support from Soft Landing and its volunteers has welcomed more than 500 refugees to Missoula. They’ve arrived from Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria.

Once settled, the individuals have gone on to open businesses, churches, restaurants and other cultural amenities that were lacking before their arrival. Together, it has made Missoula a more diverse and culturally rich community.

“You certainly enrich our culture,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “For that I’m very grateful and I think you’re making Missoula better.”

World Refugee Day was founded in 2000 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The day is set aside to recognize “the strength and resilience of our refugee neighbors as well as providing opportunities to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.”

“We feel at home here in Missoula,” said Paul Mwingwa from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Montana delegate to Refugee Congress. “I (thank) Montana state, the City of Missoula, and all the Missoulians for all the things they do for us.”