Missoula, Montana, is a predominantly white city. One can walk for an hour on the streets of downtown before meeting one or two black or brown people. Actually, the first brown person I encounter is Rozan Shbib, a refugee from Damascus, Syria.
Shbib moves around the busy, brightly-lit kitchen taking care not to get in the way of the chef and her assistants. She is the assistant manager in a kitchen located in the basement of First United Methodist Church. There are few tables and chairs, where the food – ethnic food from the Middle East – will be laid out for the people of Missoula to purchase a meal.
“Life in Missoula is beautiful and the people are kind. I started working here two years ago, and feel lucky to be here. My dream is to continue with my law degree course after I become a citizen,” she says.
Shbib works with United We Eat, a program which began in 2019. Carly Graf, the Outreach and Communications Manager for Soft Landing Missoula, says the programme was born of the idea that food is one of the ways to expose the people of Missoula to different cultures and people from around the world.
“We work with refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan. To create the cultural connection, we have a different chef from the refugee community cooking meals every week. So far, we have 25 chefs and on average, we make 170 meals a week, and each meal goes for $13 to 16,” she says.
The menu is put online on Thursday so that people can place their orders. Meals are cooked on Monday and Tuesday and sold on Tuesday.
“The programme gives the chefs an economic opportunity because they are paid about $800 for the week they have cooked, and they can take home food that lasts a week. We also cook for events such as World Refugee Day,” Graf adds.
United We Eat is one of the programmes run by Soft Landing Missoula, an organisation that is committed to creating a long welcome for newly arrived refugees in Missoula. While the International Rescue Committee has an office in Missoula, the organisation’s services to refugees are restricted to six months. Molly Poole, the executive director, says this is where Soft Landing Missoula comes in to fill the little gaps.
“We help the refugees build their lives afresh, such as working with the school system to support the children since their parents have to find jobs right away and may not have time for the children. For instance, during the school year, we hold bi-weekly tutoring classes and during the summer we have all sorts of activities with the children to help them do the things that any Montana child would be doing,” she says.
Also, importantly, the organisation helps people in the Missoula community who are interacting with the refugees understand their plight, challenges and how best to serve them.
“We have a generous community that donates all the time – bicycles, houseware, clothes, and free diapers. We also have community events to celebrate World Refugee Day, storytelling week and advocacy. Recently, we got the state to translate the drivers’ instruction manual to different languages so that the refugees can understand it,” she says.
Paul Mwingwa, a refugee from Goma, in the DRC, has been living in Missoula since 2018. Before that, he was a refugee in Rwanda for 18 years.
“I couldn’t believe it when I received a letter informing me that my case had been scheduled to travel to Missoula. I was living in Rwanda and I had never heard of Montana. I googled it but all I saw were the mountain and university. I came here with my wife and three daughters and Soft Landing helped me to settle in. I am rebuilding my life. I have learned how to speak English and I own a house,” he says.
The transition to life in a predominantly white community was made easy for Mingwa because his children learnt English with the extra tutoring provided by Soft Landing Missoula. He is now a student at Missoula College.
“It has not been easy for my wife and I to learn English. Even now, when I have to make a presentation at a conference, I first make one for my children so that they can help correct my speech. In the beginning, we made a rule that everyone should speak English at home to help us learn the language. But, at some point the children were loosing their grip on Swahili, so we backtracked. Now, they talk to us (parents) in English and we respond in Swahili. They have now forgotten French and Kinyarwanda, but because my relatives still live in Goma and we communicate regularly, I do not want my children to forget Swahili,” Mwingwa says.
Eight years ago, at the start of the Syrian war, Poole was a new mother, with a nine-months-old son. She had grown up on a farm and had been working outdoor jobs all her life. At the time, her job was trimming trees for the city council. She had never traveled out of Montana and did not know how to run an organisation.
“My friend and I were going through motherhood for the first time and we were starting to think about the world we wanted our children to live in. The conflict in Syria was coming into our news feeds and we began asking questions. What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? How can we alleviate the suffering around the world by opening our doors as a city to folks fleeing war? When the IRC opened an office in Missoula, it created a structure for folks to get welcoming services, and fortunately, we caught their attention,” she says.
The IRC offers resettlement services for three to six months, which is too short for refugees to get integrated into society. This is where Soft Landing comes in to help them get housing, jobs, school enrolments, open up bank accounts, and find primary medical providers.
“Most of our funding comes from people in the community who give us $5, 10, 100, or 10,000. We also apply for private grants and also for grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlements. We speak at churches, with civic organisations and universities and everyone who will have us. We also have a newsletter that brings us closer to the community, “ Poole adds.
The organisation now has 11 full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers. However, it was not all roses in the beginning, with the challenge being that at the time the organisation was founded, Montana was one of two states in the United States that did not welcome refugees.
“There was no refugee resettlement at all in Montana. We researched about who to contact to make the community more welcoming, how the schools and housing system would be affected. Definitely, folks who are different are very visible in our community because this is a white city. Not a lot of folks had had a chance to interact with people from the Middle East or Africa, and neither had I. There were people who were pretty upset (about bringing refugees here), although some were supportive,” Poole says.
Poole adds that most of the misgivings centred around bringing in Muslim refugees. The organisation opened just after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
“The Paris attacks were so much in the news, with a lot of propaganda, and there was a lot of fear in Americans. One, because we do not know very much about Muslims, it is not the majority religion in our country, and people are scared of terrorism. Many people here had never even met a black person before. So, things you do not know are inherently scary to you. People also had misgivings about refugees and immigrants taking their jobs. In the early days, I drank a lot of coffee and beer with people, telling them about how we can make refugees feel welcome,” she says.
Over the years there have been successes with refugees getting jobs, housing and driving licenses. Mwingwa is now a caseworker assistant at the IRC-Missoula and is a Swahili language instructor and private contractor at the Lifelong Learning Centre. Although as happens in most cases, refugees who had professional jobs in their home countries struggle to find employment in line with their skills.
There is still a long way to go to integrate refugees into Missoula City but Soft Landing Missoula is providing a step in the right direction.