By John Engen
I was 13 when the first Hmong refugees began arriving in Missoula from a place about which I knew nothing; a country across the planet I didn’t know existed. They looked different from my classmates at Willard Elementary and, a little later, my classmates at Hellgate High School as well as the other kids in my Lutheran Sunday-school class. They had accents or didn’t speak English. They were very different from me. But everything I’d been taught by my folks, my teachers, my pastors and the world told me that different is OK. And I was never, ever afraid of the Hmong.
Like most kids at that time, before the Internet, cable news, instant access to information and misinformation, I was paying attention to lots of other things than human-rights violations around the globe, wars that were supposed to be over, and the plight of refugees. So the Hmong came to live in Missoula. We went to school and church together and we figured it out.
I remember a particular face, a boy my age, badly disfigured. I don’t remember his name today, regrettably, but I remember that he worked hard to speak the only language I ever needed. He was kind, smart and did well in school. Only now, nearly 40 years later, do I understand that he was badly hurt in a war he had no part in starting, that his parents wanted for him what mine wanted for me: health, happiness, prosperity.
That boy was a refugee. A victim of violence elsewhere, at least as innocent as I was, if not nearly as naive to the cruelty and violence that has always been a presence in our world. His mom and dad wanted him to have a chance at a good life. And I hope to hell he had one, because the start couldn’t have been easy. Nor, frankly, was the rest, I suspect.
And, with the advantage of years and experience and a broader view, I think of the Hmong in the same way I think of two of my grandparents, my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother, who sailed from Norway at the turn of the last century to join countless other folks from around the world who believed in the promise of America. And while my people weren’t fleeing violence, they were fleeing hardship, were ready to work hard, contribute, make a difference and live a life of peace, love and understanding. And they did. It wasn’t easy. Not everyone was a success. But they made it work and the playing field was level. And when Nels Engen’s second and third sons volunteered to serve in the United States Army and landed on Guadalcanal, no one asked them where their dad was from. And when DeLores Nelson, who didn’t begin to learn English until the first grade, became a nurse and cared for hundreds of Americans, patients, family, friends and neighbors over the years, no one questioned whether she belonged here.
In the big scheme, I’m fresh off the boat. As is most of America. So when I’m asked whether we should welcome refugees, my answer is an emphatic yes. And while I don’t have any actual influence or legal control over immigration, if I did, I’d still support the work of the International Rescue Committee and Soft Landing Missoula. They are welcoming and supporting folks who come from situations far worse than those of my ancestors and they step up, every day, in the face of hate and falsehoods and racism and religious bias, to help folks in need improve their lives. And for every refugee who may land in Missoula, hundreds of thousands will continue to suffer and die in camps and countries where genocide is a fact and human life is cheap.
But not here. Not in Missoula.
We’ll be welcoming a family of six from the Congo this month. Mom, dad, four kids. This family fled in 1997. Three of the four children were born in the refugee camp. Three-million refugees from the Congo are homeless and living stateless, warehoused in refugee camps. This family has lived in conditions I can’t imagine and they have subjected themselves to security scrutiny that U.S. citizens would consider unconstitutional, just to have a chance at a better life.
There’s been opposition to refugee resettlement in Missoula, but it’s largely been from elsewhere and based on misinformation, fear and outright lies. Most Missoulians, the folks I and Missoula City Council members swore to serve, believe that we’re up to the task of helping our share of refugees, whatever their situation, provided they’ve been thoroughly vetted by our government and the agencies who only continue to exist if they keep communities and refugees safe. And if I’m wrong about this or any of a number of issues, I will learn soon enough at the polls.
Finally, welcoming refugees to our community doesn’t excuse us from taking care of everyone who is here today. There is poverty, hunger, violence and trouble right here in Missoula. We have folks who live, in some ways, as American refugees by virtue of a national political atmosphere that’s created more “have-nots” than “haves.” Taking care of the suffering here and those from somewhere else is not a mutually exclusive proposition. We’ll take care of our own and a few others, because that’s what this country is about. Sometimes this gets lost in irrational national dialogue.
The fact is that the IRC Missoula has solid funding and these families joining our community will be far less subsidized by taxpayers than the richest Americans. Volunteers and the good folks at our own Soft Landing Missoula will ensure that our adopted families will thrive, assimilate and enrich our place.
Most of us came from somewhere, refugees in some sense of the word. The Hmong have made Missoula better. As have the Irish, the Japanese, the Scandinavians, Italians, Germans, Brits, Jordanians, Indians, Kiwis, Lebanese, Nigerians and the many souls who can trace their roots to somewhere other than Missoula, Montana. I’ve left someone out, but not on purpose.
And we’re only as good as the principles and values we practice, at least as much as we preach. Bring us your huddled masses, yearning to be free.
Welcome, fellow humans yearning to be free. Would that we could accommodate the masses. Today, we welcome five, then 10, then 100. You will help us fulfill the promise of a great nation, as have countless immigrants from the time this country was born.
John Engen is the mayor of the city of Missoula.