In Montana, neighbor vs neighbor over welcoming refugees

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Posted: Jun 09, 2016 12:16 AM
In Montana, neighbor vs neighbor over welcoming refugees

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — 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," she says. "I didn't do this to be controversial. I didn't do this to stir the pot."

But it did. And what started as a clash over a single issue — welcoming dozens of refugees to this peaceful corner of western Montana — soon erupted into a larger feud over Islam, big government and the idea that Americans should "take care of our own" before worrying about newcomers.

Demonstrators took to the streets carrying signs with wildly divergent views: "Rise Above Fear, Refugees Welcome" versus "No Jobs, No Housing, No Free Anything." Neighboring counties — and in some cases, neighbors — locked horns. Some refugee opponents warned Islamic State terrorists could infiltrate their communities.

Missoula Mayor John Engen traces this turmoil to broader fears that have gripped the country. "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," he says.

But Ray Hawk, a commissioner in Ravalli County, just south of here, says the threats are real. "These are folks that have declared war on the United States," he says.

The conflict reflects what's happening across the nation in an election year dominated by immigration rhetoric — including calls by Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, to build a border wall, deport massive numbers of immigrants living in the country illegally and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

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 Americans are polarized over matters ranging from gay marriage to guns, the rift over refugees is yet another "incarnation of the larger divide in the country," says the Rev. Joseph Carver, whose congregation at Missoula's St. Francis Xavier Parish overwhelmingly favors bringing refugees to town.

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."

Missoula is an island of progressive blue surrounded by a sea of conservative red, so disagreements with neighbors aren't unusual. But for many, something feels different about this particular feud in this particular election year. Hostilities seem greater somehow — directed not only at those seen as "other" but even some who've long called this place home.

"This is the first time I actually look behind me as I walk. I've been here 42 years," says Samir Bitar, an Arabic studies professor at the University of Montana. "It's like every part of my identity is coming under attack, including my American identity."

Montana is not a diverse state. Nearly nine of 10 residents are white and only 2 percent of the population is foreign-born, according to Census figures. Since 2012, the state has welcomed just 13 refugees from Cuba and Iraq, according to officials.

But if there's one place primed to roll out a welcome mat, it's Missoula, a laid-back college town (it's home to the University of Montana) with coffee houses, bike trails and a peace center named after the first woman member of Congress, who happened to be a pacifist. The community also has a recent history of helping refugees: Hmong, Ukrainians and Belarusians have been resettled here in decades past.

So when Poole 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 Missoula's mayor, most council members and the three Democratic county commissioners, who sent letters to federal officials.

Elsewhere, however, the objections were fierce.

In Ravalli County, commissioners drafted a letter opposing refugees, after presiding over a packed hearing. And in testimony, letters and at rallies, some Montanans argued that Muslims or others from the Middle East — some opposed all refugees — could impose new financial pressures and threaten the American way of life. Many said their biggest fear was the U.S. government couldn't conduct adequate screening.

"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 in Whitehall, Montana, who organized three opposition rallies.

The other side weighed in with reminders of America's history of providing sanctuary to those who've fled war and oppression, pointed to a lengthy screening process, and noted that other refugees had resettled successfully in the state.

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. Wathen sees the rejection of refugees as a blend of misinformation, economic anxiety and fear of the unknown.

"You name whatever religious or ethnic group — they can always be seen as the 'other,'" he says. "It just surpasses any notion of reason ... that kind of idea that they are not us, and therefore they pose a threat."

The International Rescue Committee has met with Missoula officials to prepare for the refugees — about 100 will come over a year. 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.

Mary Poole is looking forward to their arrival, expecting it will change the life of her 17-month-old son, Jack.

There will come a day, she says with a smile, 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."

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Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen@ap.org.