Prairie Lights: Blessed by immigrants in our midst

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, right, with his wife, Maddie, second from left, son, Bliss, at left, and daughter, Jaymie. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

(Last Best News) Supporters of refugee resettlement, for good reason, tend to focus on all the good things that we can do for people who come here from other countries.

On Friday, as I listened to Wilmot Collins, who entered the United States as a Liberian refugee and is now the mayor of Helena, it occurred to me that we should also spend some time considering how good it is for us to have refugees in our midst.

Ed Kemmick

As Collins told people at a community forum in Billings on Friday, he escaped from a country where he and his family suffered from violence, civil war, anarchy and desperate privation. “What we went through in Liberia was nothing short of torture,” he said.

He could have been consumed by hatred or fear, by cynicism or paranoia. Instead, in person, he radiates peace and gratitude. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, but he is boundlessly optimistic, full of joy.

And he has been, in the words of Joyce Nachtsheim, “a godsend to the Helena community.”

I called Joyce on Saturday to hear what it was like to have played such a large part in helping Wilmot Collins and his family. Joyce and her husband, Bruce “Butch” Nachtsheim, were the host parents of Collins’ wife, Maddie, when she was a high school  exchange student in 1984.

Eight years later, Maddie called the Nachtsheims from Ghana, to which she and Wilmot had fled to escape a brutal civil war in Liberia. Thanks in part to a nursing scholarship offered by Carroll College, the Nachtsheims were able to bring Maddie back to Helena on a student visa.

Maddie was pregnant when she left Ghana, so she, and later her daughter, too, lived with the Nachtsheims until Wilmot could join them, which he did after undergoing a vetting process that took two years and seven months.

At first, Joyce Nachtsheim was reluctant to talk about the Collinses as “refugees.”

“From the time they came, they were more than refugees,” she said. “They were family.”

Within a month of Wilmot’s arrival in Helena, he and Maddie were making enough money between them to get their own place, and they have never looked back. Wilmot held several jobs over the years, most recently working for the state in child protection services, and he was active in the Kiwanis and Toastmasters.

“I think Wilmot knew more people than Butch and I did, and we were born here,” Joyce said.

Maddie was widely known as well, having worked as a nurse at St. Peter’s Hospital, at the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison and in local nursing homes. So when Wilmot was elected mayor last fall, Joyce said, “there was a part of me that was not at all surprised.”

There was one pleasant surprise about his candidacy, however.

“He had a very planned, thoughtful campaign,” Joyce said. “And it was probably the cleanest campaign I’ve ever seen in my life — and I’m getting pretty old.” For that reason and many others, she said, “Helena, Montana, has been hugely blessed by having the Collinses in the community.”

There are those who argue that we can’t afford to help refugees and other immigrants because we have too many homeless, hungry fellow citizens already. I would argue that we can’t afford not to continue taking in desperate people from other lands.

If we were to stop, it would be like announcing that the American experiment is over, that the country founded as a safe haven for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was now officially closed. All the most affluent countries in the world have a duty to do their part to help as many refugees as they reasonably can. If doing good was easy, it wouldn’t be a virtue.

And if we stopped taking refugees, we would not meet people like Wilmot and Maddie Collins, who remind us, in our fat and happy complacency, that we ought to feel more gratitude, that we ought to do more to make the world a better place, that despite hardships and setbacks we can remain optimistic and that we should not surrender to cynicism or small-mindedness.

The Collinses, obviously, were extraordinary people to begin with. They were educated and came from an English-speaking country. They had drive and courage and they were lucky enough to have had connections to someone in the United States.

But we won’t know until they come here what other refugees are like, what they might offer to us. At the very least, our communities will be richer for their presence, our children more aware of the wider world and their obligations within it.

We can’t know exactly what the future holds, but it is impossible to imagine that the world is going to become less diverse, that there is going to less movement of people around the globe. You can build walls and hire more border agents, but you can’t repeal the internet or ban all air travel.

Those countries that learn soonest how to benefit from the inevitably enlarging mix of cultures will be the strongest, most resilient countries. Joyce Nachtsheim said Helena has been blessed by the presence of the Collinses.

Missoula has been blessed, too. Since 2016, we learned at the forum on Friday, the International Rescue Committee has resettled 170 people — from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — in and around Missoula.

Maybe one of them will be mayor of Missoula someday. Maybe one of them, or one of their children, will be the governor of Montana. Time will tell, but for now, the American dream seems to be alive and well.