By Martin Kidston
The night after Missoula became an official “welcoming city” in refugee speak, a film crew with Al Jazeera English unloaded its gear and began shooting a short feature on the city’s resettlement efforts.
Mary Poole of Soft Landing Missoula was first to sit before the camera at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, while the organization’s director, Betsy Mulligan-Dague, sat waiting her turn. While the issue at hand may be familiar to many Missoula residents, what’s taking place in this rural Montana valley still holds fascination to those seeking good in a conflicted world.
Broadcast journalist Andy Gallacher, whose reporting forays have taken him from Haiti to the war in Iraq, found Missoula curious enough to fly with his crew from Miami to gain a better understanding of how the city emerged as a haven for refugees fleeing war and violence.
The crew arrived this week after Al Jazeera’s editors signed off on the story.
“The whole refugee thing has become a flash point in the (presidential) election,” Gallacher said on Tuesday. “Without really knowing it, what (Poole) started here has attracted a lot of attention, because it has become an electoral issue. It hits at everything. It hits at what we are as Americans.”
Standing on Higgins Avenue smoking a cigarette after the morning shoot, Gallacher and Al Jazeera producer Karim Haddad considered the story they were chasing and what brought them across the continent to the Northern Rockies.
While Montana is viewed nationally as a red state – and one that may be slow to accommodate foreign refugees – Missoula has gained a different sort of reputation. As reporter Matthew Danzico said in August while shooting a feature for the British Broadcasting Corporation, Missoula stands apart politically from most of its neighbors.
“People are concerned about what we as a country should do about refugees, and this offers the whole thing in a microcosm,” Gallacher said. “It’s a small town in a very white state in a crucial election year. It’s nice to look at something in the micro sense and expand it out to the whole country.”
To the international news crew, the fears and offers of help found in Missoula stand as a reflection of what’s taking place nationally. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has gained a following by taking a nationalistic tone, one that critics have said represents the worst of America.
Political watchdogs have seen the rhetoric trickle down to Montana’s gubernatorial race as well, with the state’s Republican candidate issuing campaign fliers tying Islamic terrorists to Muslim refugees.
Gallacher believes Poole represents the opposite point of view.
“Here you have this woman moved tears, even as I was interviewing her, about a dead boy on the beach, and she’s trying to do something about it,” said Gallacher. “She’s almost a little naive about it and didn’t really know it was going to blow up like this. It has become much bigger than Soft Landing.”
During the interview, Gallacher questioned Poole on how Soft Landing got its start – a story that’s now familiar in Missoula. As Poole has noted before, the photo of Alan Kurdi – a 3-year-old Syrian boy drowned on a Turkish beach – pushed her and others to act. Poole was a new mother at the time and the image stirred in her something she hadn’t felt before.
She didn’t expect what followed to be controversial.
“It wasn’t even on my radar that the refugee crisis was an issue,” Poole said during the Al Jazeera interview. “It was a surprise to me. I feel like I put a lot of work into siting down one-on-one with people and trying to understand where they’re coming from.”
Poole’s efforts to mend fences has helped in a handful of cases, though some still strongly oppose resettlement efforts in Montana.
A handful of those opponents have taken to questionable tactics by writing anonymous letters, forging signatures and, in one instance, forming a new group that has gained the attention of the Montana Human Rights Network.
Last month, Missoula received its first batch of refugees – a family of six from the Democratic Republic of Congo. When asked if she’d still like to see Syrian refugees resettled in Missoula, Poole said Soft Landing stands behind the effort.
Missoula, she said, is ready to greet any nationality with open arms.
“The refugees we have now have received nothing but a warm welcome, and I hope we can continue to see that in our community,” Poole said. “For every ‘interesting’ email I get, I get eight, 10 or 15 others every day from people looking to help. We have a volunteer list that’s growing by the hundreds.”
Gallacher, who is originally from England and Haddad, from Lebanon, said the effort in Missoula has cut through the din of a noisy election season. Still, they said, it’s not the only effort in a right-leaning state trying to make a positive difference.
“We did a story in Kansas – it was a really nice story there,” Haddad said. “There’s a program called Roots for Refugees, where a Catholic church runs an ag program that brings in people from Myanmar. They were teaching them to work the land, and then they were buying land and running their own farm. People seemed to love it.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org