Soft Landing Missoula joins national network to support refugees

Mary Poole, Soft Landing Missoula executive director, will attend the first-ever national Hello Neighbor Network summit in Pittsburgh in November.

In a show of collaboration and support, Soft Landing Missoula has been inducted into the Hello Neighbor Network leadership cohort for its exceptional work in helping refugees settle in Missoula.

Mary Poole, Soft Landing executive director, said her office joins seven other like-minded organizations dedicated to helping refugees as they navigate their new lives in the states.

Refugees come to the United States through the International Rescue Committee, a State Department settlement agency. Soft Landing Missoula works with IRC to support refugees arriving locally and collaborates with Missoula County Public Schools, the Missoula Job Service and various faith communities.

Hello Neighbor, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, founded the Hello Neighbor Network after recognizing that organizations were springing up across the nation doing similar work. The cohort will generate new ideas and share resources to help combat polarization and increase inclusiveness for refugees throughout the nation.

“For the very first time ever, we and those local nonprofits have organized into a national network,” said Poole. “Instead of necessarily being these silos and insulated nonprofits in different cities, we’re organizing in order to support each other, elevate our voices in support of refugees and to share ideas and best practices of work we’re doing in our own communities.” 

Poole will attend the network’s first-ever summit Nov. 13-15 in Pittsburgh, where she will give a presentation on Soft Landing’s food initiatives. 

“We’ve had so much success with food,” she said. “It’s really two-fold: to provide a cultural bridge for our community to interact with refugees and learn from refugees. It’s also to provide economic opportunity for refugees.”

The conference, said Poole, is especially important and timely now, when the Trump administration has capped immigrants allowed into the U.S. at 18,000 for 2020.

The Hello Neighbor Network will empower nationwide organizations to help mitigate the polarization gap most refugee families are facing in communities across the nation.

 “It’s especially important right now. Resettlement is trying to be dismantled at the national level,” Poole said. “The advocacy work and all the work that’s happening in communities across the nation needs to be heard, so this group is really the start of that – it’s the start of local communities that have been loving this work, who have been banding together – to be able to come together and support each other and refugees.”

Sloan Davidson, Hello Neighbor Network founder, said:

“As the global refugee crisis has increased, the United States has begun to strongly debate immigration policies and the arrival of immigrants and refugees in our country. As a nation, it’s time to empower a new generation of nonprofits focused on supporting refugees. The Hello Neighbor Network creates a critical platform for these nonprofits leaders to learn from one another, share best practices, and tackle challenges together.”

Ghalia Ahmad Fayz Almasri, 31, is a Syrian native, three-year Missoula resident and a Soft Landing chef for the organization’s monthly food club. (Courtesy photo)

As part of its food initiatives, Soft Landing holds popular monthly supper clubs by pairing with local restaurants in which the refugee or immigrant home cooks-turned-chefs are paid for their services.

“We get a refugee chef cooking in their kitchen, we offer a meal to the community,” said Poole. 

Ghalia Ahmad Fayz Almasri, 31, a Syrian native relocated to Missoula three years ago, is one of the chefs who thrives on the monthly supper club, where she can share her talents in the kitchen.

“I like to cook and I like the people,” said Almasri, who has three children with her husband. 

“They’re all home cooks,” Poole said of the chefs. “We’re talking grandmother recipes and cultures who are incredibly generous with their food that is a huge part of their culture. We take the hospitality in people’s homes and share that.” 

Soft Landing holds online cookie sales via a platform Poole’s staff helped create. The next big cookie sale is set for Thanksgiving. 

As part of the ongoing food initiative, Soft Landing helps refugees set up their tables and wares at local farmers markets, and helps immigrants start their own small food-based businesses in order to boost entrepreneurial skills. 

Also, United We Eat at Home, started last summer, provides a weekly meal take-out/pick-up service in conjunction with River Song Gourmet, a commercial kitchen. 

“Once a week, people order and pick up a meal to cook at home – and they’re all cooked by immigrant chefs. So we have a lot going on for food – that’s why it’s exciting that we’re going to present at the summit.” 

The community can sign up for the main Soft Landing newsletter at www.softlandingmissoula.org or for email list for United We Eat at Home, which disseminates announcements of upcoming events at www.unitedweeatmt.org.

“The thing about our food initiatives is they’re extremely popular,” said Poole. “Last summer, we were selling out of 150 pick-up meals in 45 minutes. Many times they sold out in under an hour.”

The menu includes Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi food and desserts. 

Contact Missoula Current Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at renatab@missoulacurrent.com and 406-565-0013.