MISSOULA, Mont. — For the world, the photograph of a Syrian 3-year-old in a red T-shirt and black sneakers, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach, was a horrific symbol of the desperation of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
For Mary Poole, a young mother haunted by “those little shoes ... the little face,” it was an inspiration.
She and members of her book club asked: Why not bring a small number of Syrian families to Missoula?
She knows now that this was a “romantic” notion. “It wasn’t even a grain of sand in my brain that people wouldn’t want to help starving, drowning families. I didn’t do this to be controversial. I didn’t do this to stir the pot.”
AP Photo / Brennan Linsley
But it did. And what started as a disagreement over whether to welcome dozens of refugees to this peaceful corner of western Montana soon erupted into something much larger, encompassing wildly divergent views of Islam, big government and whether Americans should “take care of our own” before worrying about newcomers.
Neighboring counties — and in some cases, neighbors — locked horns.
Demonstrators took to the streets: “No Jobs, No Housing, No Free Anything,” proclaimed some opponents’ signs. Some warned that Islamic State terrorists could infiltrate their communities; others suggested that the federal government, long accused of tyranny in its dealings with the West, was at it again.
The refugees’ supporters did not back off. “Rise Above Fear, Refugees Welcome” they declared.
Missoula’s mayor, John Engen, was among them. “I think that the war on terror has produced an internal war on compassion,” he says. “We have been programmed to be very afraid since 9/11 and to think of people who aren’t white Anglo-Saxon Americans as ‘other.’ and we should be afraid of people who are ‘other.’”
Montana divided over Syrian refugee resettlement
This did not occur in a vacuum. What‘s happened here reflects what‘s happening across the nation in an election year dominated by inflammatory rhetoric over immigration, including calls for building a border wall, the mass deportation of immigrants living in the country illegally, and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the U.S.
And more generally, Montanans are like other Americans who ask: How are we to live together, as one nation, when we are so estranged?
At a time when the public is polarized over issues ranging from gay marriage to guns, the Rev. Joseph Carver, pastor at St. Francis Xavier Parish, sees this as just another “incarnation of the larger divide in the country.” His congregation, which gathers in a towering 124-year-old brick structure with frescoes, ornate scroll work, is overwhelmingly in favor of refugees.
Carver, like others here, believes the spark that ignited this conflict is fear. “Refugees,” he declares, “are seen as a threat to our way of life.”
Montana is a place of great beauty, with its snow-capped mountains, Ponderosa pines, bighorn sheep, bison and elk. Fly fishermen reel in trout from shimmering streams. College kids can be spotted kayaking on the Clark Fork River on cool spring nights. And a bookstore owner can point to the park down the street where a moose is known to frequent.
It is not, however, a diverse place. Though the sparsely populated state is home to seven Indian reservations, nearly nine of 10 residents are white, according to Census figures. Only about 2 percent are foreign-born. Since 2012, the state has welcomed just 13 refugees from Cuba and Iraq, according to officials.
But Missoula, site of a World War II detention center for Japanese-Americans, Italian merchant seamen and others, has a recent history of embracing refugees. The International Rescue Committee resettled the Hmong in the late 1970s and through the 1980s; some remain as farmers. Later, another agency brought Ukrainians and Belarusians here.
With its coffee houses, murals and bike trails, Missoula has a laid-back feel. It is home to the University of Montana, as well as a peace center named for Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist who was the first woman member of Congress — and the only vote against declaring war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack. The center’s philosophy is captured on a wall lined with bumper stickers — “Peace is Patriotic,” “Books Not Bombs” and “Practice Nonviolence” — and a stenciled message on a front window: “Refugees Welcome.”
AP Photo / Brennan Linsley
When Poole, a jewelry maker, and others formed a group called Soft Landing, they quickly expanded their plan to include not just Syrians but all refugees and turned to the International Rescue Committee to lead the resettlement. Their efforts were endorsed by the mayor, most council members and the three Democratic county commissioners, who sent letters to federal officials.
But Missoula is an island of progressive blue surrounded by a sea of conservative red, and often diverges politically from other communities in Montana.
Just to the south, in rural and Republican Ravalli County, a county commissioners’ hearing over the issue was moved to a middle school gym to accommodate the hundreds who showed up for what turned into a raucous meeting. Several pro-refugee speakers were jeered .The commissioners formalized their opposition in their own letter to federal officials— and Flathead County, nearly 130 miles north of Missoula, did the same weeks later.
In testimony and letters in Ravalli County, those saying “no” outlined their objections. They argued that Muslims or others from the Middle East could create the kind of chaos seen in Europe, impose an enormous tax burden and wouldn’t be able to assimilate because they don’t share American values. Many said their biggest fear was the U.S. government couldn’t conduct adequate screening. Some spoke of apocalyptic visions of terrorists posing as refugees making their way to the quiet countryside.
“There’s no 800 number you can call into Morocco or Libya or any one of those places ... and say, ‘Can you check the identity of this person?’ Without the ability to properly vet them, it‘s literally putting Americans’ lives at risk,” says Eli Anselmi, who felt compelled to write a letter even though he lives three hours away in Bozeman.
The risk may be minimal, he says, but the potential harm is great. “Let’s say that you have a bowl of M&Ms ... and there are two that have cyanide. Will you eat from that bowl?”
“Let’s say that you have a bowl of M&Ms ... and there are two that have cyanide. Will you eat from that bowl?”
Ray Hawk, a Ravalli County commissioner, has similar worries. “These are folks that have declared war on the United States,” he says. “Their war is terrorism and that’s the way they’re going to do it. And I don’t feel that we need to give them that chance. Now, if the government gets a handle on this thing and has a way to vet these people, I’m all for them. I love to see anybody come into America and succeed.”
Supporters of the refugees weighed in with reminders of America’s tradition of providing sanctuary to those who’ve fled war and oppression; some cited their own family history. They spoke of empathy, pointed to a lengthy screening process and noted the other refugees who resettled here successfully in recent decades.
The refugee crisis reaches every corner of the country
Shawn Wathen, a bookstore owner in Ravalli County, was appalled his 18-year-old son was booed when he testified in support of the refugees and then later cursed by some opponents. Wathen wrote the commissioners, accusing them of “xenophobic grandstanding.” One replied that he was “ignorant.”
Wathen, who has called the sprawling Bitterroot Valley home for 20 years, sees the rejection of refugees as a blend of misinformation, economic anxiety and fear of the unknown.
“It surpasses any notion of reason ... that kind of idea that they are not us, and therefore they pose a threat,” he says. “There‘s just that sense the horde is out there and if we don’t circle the wagons ... we’re going to be overrun and poor white America is going to suffer.”
America has a long history of wariness of refugees.
Last November, shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks, a Gallup poll found that Americans, by 60 to 37 percent, opposed taking in refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. In 1978, there was a 57 to 32 percent opposition to accepting Indochinese boat people, and in 1946, after World War II, the public was against welcoming displaced people from Europe, including Jews, by 72 to 16 percent.
Generally, Americans tend to favor refugees with whom they share some connection — political, religious or personal — and the public has little interaction with Muslims, says David Haines, a professor emeritus at George Mason University who has written extensively about refugees.
He says the public doesn’t understand the rigorous vetting process. “The risks from refugees are really low because it‘s an extremely well-screened population,” he says. “But it‘s hard for people to settle down on this issue, especially in a highly politicized context.”
In Missoula, academics and religious leaders have expressed alarm about the harsh tone of the presidential campaign, especially comments aimed at Muslims by Donald Trump. In April, they sponsored “Celebrate Islam Week" at the university in hopes of countering the trend.
Among the participants was Samir Bitar, an Arabic studies professor who arrived at the University of Montana in the 1970s as a 16-year-old freshman, raised a family and has spent most of his adult life here.
Bitar has lectured for decades across the state without controversy — until this year, when about a dozen people in the nearby town of Darby objected to his planned talk at the library. The reason: They didn’t want a Muslim in their town, according to the librarian. The library board voted. Bitar spoke and received a warm reception.
But the tone and atmosphere are decidedly different now, he says.
“This is the first time I actually look behind me as I walk. I've been here 42 years,” he says. “It's like every part of my identity is coming under attack, including my American identity.”
Recently, two students accepted Bitar's challenge to walk around wearing Muslim head gear to see how people would react. One young man donned a kufi, or skull cap, and classmates wouldn’t sit next to him, Bitar says. While working at a deli, the student was rebuffed by a customer's wife who said: “'We're not going to have a Muslim help us.'”
Bitar, who is Palestinian, finds it all disheartening. People now are “motivated by pure emotion and not really thinking in logical terms,” he says. “Fear turns into hatred.”
Jameel Chaudhry, the campus architect, a native of Kenya and another member of the small Muslim community, says he, too, senses a new hostility.
“All of a sudden WE are the problem,” he says. “We've never had this before, and I've been here 20 years. We didn’t have this even after 9/11.”
Chaudhry attributes this attitude to Trump, accusing the presumptive Republican nominee of stoking fears for political gain.
“He's become the champion of the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee movement,” he says. While that group talks of being tired of political correctness, Chaudhry sees something else: “They don’t want the other races coming in here.”
But those who've publicly spoken out against refugees bristle at suggestions they're racist. They say they're trying to protect their communities.
“It doesn’t make any difference if they're Muslims, Russians, whatever. You have to know who they are, what they've been doing in the past,” says Jim Buterbaugh, a construction worker who organized three opposition rallies, including one at the state Capitol. “Are you going to go downtown and take five people off the streets and move them into your house without knowing who they are? Nobody in their right mind would do that.”
He and others are upset they have no vote on this issue. State and local governments legally don’t have authority to bar refugees, though they can refuse to directly provide local services, according to Haines. Last fall, more than half the nation's governors declared their opposition to accepting Syrian refugees, saying a pause was needed until security concerns are addressed.
That sense of being shut out of decision-making reflects a wider distrust of the government in parts of the West, where federal policies involving land, water and endangered species often clash with energy, timber and grazing interests. Though the refugee debate is different, it exposes the same raw nerves among opponents, who also question the economic and social impact.
In a letter to her commissioners, Ravalli County resident Birte Nellessen said, “to fool ourselves that we are helping 'poor folks driven out of their homeland by war' is ridiculous. They openly and blazingly state that they are coming to destroy us and our culture. ... Why we would spend any of our hard earned money on people like that?”
Nellessen, who moved to the U.S. from Germany 20 years ago, says officials should instead support local folks in need and that a smarter course would be to send supplies or money to help refugees rebuild in their homeland.
“I mean, what's a Syrian or Kenyan going to do in winter in Montana? Seriously.”
“I mean, what's a Syrian or Kenyan going to do in winter in Montana? Seriously.”
The answer is coming. The International Rescue Committee has met with Missoula's mayor, police chief and others to prepare for the refugees — about 100 will come over a year's time. The agency plans to reopen a resettlement office here this fall, after a 25-year absence. Those most likely to be relocated include Congolese, Afghans and Syrians who will have no family ties, so they'll have to live within a 50-mile radius of the office.
Mary Poole is looking forward to their arrival.
About 750 people have signed up to help refugees make the transition, she says. One former Missoula resident now living in Mongolia wants to get involved when she returns.
Poole is already thinking ahead, too, about how this could change the life of her 17-month-old son, Jack.
She envisions a day, she says, when he “will be able to sit in a school next to someone of a different color, of a different language, of a different culture — and be able to learn that he lives in a global world. ... I don’t think we can be insulated anymore.”
Poole knows resistance remains, and still meets with those who don’t want refugees here. She says she's even made friends with some vocal opponents, recently inviting them to her house for a barbecue.
“We're asking for compassion,” she says, “and must be able to give that ourselves.”
And there's always a chance to win some over.
“They are us,' she says of the opponents. “They are part of our community, and in order for this to be as successful as it possibly can be, it's about being in it together.”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com.