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Rosendale should learn about the joys of making America a more welcoming place

by Mary Poole
| December 31, 2021 12:00 AM

In a recent op-ed, Rep. Matt Rosendale opposed resettlement of Afghan refugees as a danger to our community. We disagree and would like to share our experiences with you, and him.

Our grassroots nonprofit, Soft Landing Missoula, has done the work of successfully welcoming and helping resettle refugees in Missoula for the past five years, aided by this community’s generous spirit. We consider this work an honor and continue every day to receive more than we could ever give.

Refugee resettlement never has been, nor will it probably ever be, easy. Families fleeing horrific violence and persecution are coming to a place where they have to learn a new language and start completely from scratch. It requires funding, it requires the community’s time and engagement, it requires building the kind of relationships, infrastructure, and programming that Missoula has embarked on these last five years. It requires constant adaptation and innovation – locally and on a national and international level – to ensure that each situation is evaluated and addressed in a way that is safe, effective, and the right thing to do.

If you were to ask those Montanans who have committed the time, given a good chunk of the funding, or shifted structures in their workplaces to bring more equity to their services, they would agree that there are challenges, and sometimes it is hard. But first they will probably smile and tell you a story or two about new friendships that have changed their lives and the life of this community.

Knowing the thousands of people in the Missoula area, refugee and American-born alike, who share all of these experiences and have built their lives together for the last five years, we can only imagine that Rep. Rosendale feels the way he feels for the simple reason that he must not know. He must not know the real challenges, dedication, triumph, and joy of believing in, celebrating, and working hard for a humanity that is so much bigger than your own.

We feel like maybe he hasn’t seen smiles on the faces of the children when they splash in Seeley Lake or view the mountains in Glacier National Park for the first time. We doubt that he knows the relief, mixed with fear, mixed with hope, of a dad watching his daughter hop on a school bus for the first time since her life was threatened for attending school and they fled. He cannot have witnessed a mother cradle her most precious possession that only by luck and grit was she able to bring to this place. We don’t believe he has watched a young man light up at the chance of finding a job working with computers, a universal language he learned back home and now gets to bring here. And he probably hasn’t met a young woman as a first-generation college student, pouring over homework until late in the night after she gets off of work, but doing it and succeeding.

And how could he know these things? He has never visited us. He has never met with us and sat with our new neighbors. He has never heard their stories that tell of a journey from home, to hell, to refuge. Not free from sorrow even here, but still a journey rich with friendships, community, family, opportunity, and yes, joy.

Rep. Rosendale, we say that maybe you do not know these things, but in truth, these are the same smiles of your children, these are the same hesitations and fears of your father, this is the same love of your mother, the same joy of your brother, and the same hard-won success of your sister.

And, maybe you are not aware that refugees’ lives are also built on the same values as our own. What family that has gone through what a displaced family has gone through would not value the security and safety he speaks of? What man who has gone through the agony of having to leave his brother behind would not constantly be driven by the importance of family? What parent who has to start back at square one in a low-wage job to make sure their kids have access to education doesn’t share the value of hard work and perseverance? What human who has been stripped of their rights, livelihood, loved ones, and safety doesn’t value the independence and opportunity for self-determination of damn near every Montanan?

Just as the lives of our loved ones are worthy of all of the hard work, resources, and challenges that go into making a life, so are the lives of refugees. Not because they are perfect, but because they are people.

Rep. Rosendale, we would love to extend an invitation. Will you sit with us? Share a coffee or some tea? Will you visit with Afghans and other refugees? Will you hear the stories of your constituents dedicating time and resources to the challenges and the joys of making America a more welcoming place? Our door is open, any time.

Mary Poole is executive director of Soft Landing Missoula. The nonprofit works to help refugees and immigrants to Missoula integrate and thrive.