Welcoming Refugees to Northwest Montana?

On July 25, a group of us, friends and associates of Love Lives Here in the Flathead, met with Mary Poole and Elias Nawawaieh to discuss welcoming people who have fled war and violence in their home countries.  Mary heads up Soft Landing of Missoula, which is organizing to welcome a hundred refugees to their area in the coming year.  Elias is a Palestinian Christian who currently lives in Polson with his American wife and her family

Mary gave an extensive presentation on the nature of the refugee crisis. Refugees are people who have fled their home country and cannot return because of a well founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. According to the UN, there are about 20 million refugees registered worldwide.

These 20 million are a fraction of the approximately 60 million people displaced by war and conflict.  Most of the 60 million are displaced within their own country, and can be resettled there.  For the 20 million UN-registered refugees, there are three options:  repatriation, local integration, and third country resettlement. About half can be repatriated, taken back into their own countries. Another forty nine percent can be resettled in those neighboring countries where they have fled.  One percent have situations too challenging for either of these solutions.  They must be recommended for third country resettlement.  The US can receive some of these, whom Mary calls “the most vulnerable and persecuted people in the world.”(One percent of sixty million is still 600,000, not a small number.)  We can debate how much is our fair share, but without answering that, it is easy to say we should be doing more than we are.

In 2015, most refugees received by the US were from Burma, Iraq, Somalia. Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bhutan.

Mary spent some time explaining the vetting process that refugees go through before coming the US.  This is a process that takes about two years for most families.  Five different Federal agencies are involved.

  • Multiple identity investigations, fingerprints and photographs.
  • In person interviews with well trained Homeland Security officers
  • Medical screenings
  • Counterterrorism investigations by counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies
  • Supervisory review of all decisions
  • Forensic testing of documents by trained personnel
  • For Syrian refugees, iris scans throughout the process to confirm identity.

We also wanted to know how the process works on this end.  When families are approved to enter the US, where do they go and how are they welcomed?

    • The US has agreed to take 85,000 refugees this year.  10,000 can be from Syria.
    • They are resettled by one of 9 “Voluntary Agencies” to 190 locations around the US. (Wyoming and Montana are the only two states not served by these agencies.)
    • Missoula has applied to be part of the resettlement program with a goal of serving one family at a time.

There are other ways to help refutes and displaced people.  Elias’ experience shows the possibilities. He travels to the Middle East regularly to help people there.  He is especially interested in resettling young women who have lost their families, since there are great cultural difficulties for women without fathers, brothers, or husbands.  He is also eager to meet with religious groups who might be able to help provide winter coats and warm clothing for refugees who need them.

But resettlement is an important need right now.  We all left the meeting wondering if the Flathead could do what Missoula is doing, actually welcome refugee families, in spite of the attitude of the County Commissioners.