Small-town America is arguing over whether to welcome Syria’s refugees or fear them

The World
A group of activists march down a street with a large banner that reads, STAND TOGETHER MONTANA.

Like many people with roots in the rural parts of Montana, Drew Taylor didn’t like the idea of Muslim Syrian refugees settling in Missoula. And so, when a pro-refugee group held a demonstration downtown, Taylor joined the counter-demonstration and held up a sign that said “Americans first.”

“I personally thought they wanted to bring radical jihad Muslims to Missoula. That’s the original impression I got from things I was reading. That upsets me,” she says.

What happened next set in motion a series of events that changed how Taylor views refugees, Muslims and some of the friends she keeps. It’s the kind of story that seems rare nowadays, when people increasingly isolate themselves online and unfriend those who have opposing views, rather than share a drink or start a conversation.

It’s also the kind of story that could give hope to those working to integrate refugees across the country. Sometimes, even when the Republican nominee for president calls for banning Muslims from entering the country and compares Syrian refugees to poisonous snakes, the us-versus-them breaks down when people start meeting people.

Currently, only two states in the country don’t have an organization working to resettle refugees: Wyoming and Montana — but that will soon change. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of nine contractors that work with the US State Department to resettle refugees, is set to reopen its office in Missoula by the end of the summer. It was last open from 1979 to 1991 as part of an effort to resettle Hmong refugees.

People on both sides of the issue are watching. Ann Corcoran, an influential anti-refugee and anti-Muslim blogger based in Maryland, has been following developments in Missoula closely. She believes that what happens there could set an important precedent.

“Falling in a presidential election year, all of the elements come together for possibly a decisive political battle about the UN/US State Department Refugee Admissions program and whether small cities, like Missoula and its citizens, will have a say going forward about Washington changing the demographic makeup of rural America,” she wrote in an email. “A perfect storm to perhaps settle the question going forward: Who decides the cultural, religious, demographic makeup of American towns?”

More about Ann Corcoran: How an environmental lobbyist became an influential anti-refugee blogger

Missoula’s elected officials have spoken, and just about all of them — the mayor, the county board of supervisors and the school’s superintendent — support the IRC’s office.

But not everyone in this liberal college town (a popular bumper sticker proclaims Missoula is “only 50 miles from Montana”) has been happy about the prospect of new neighbors. Officials in other parts of the state, such as the Bitterroot Valley in Ravalli County just south of Missoula, tend to oppose any effort that might result in refugees coming to Montana.

Their concern is mainly with Muslim refugees.

“The United States may not be at war with Islam but Islam is at war with the United States,” one man said at Ravalli County Commission meeting on the topic in February, which local news outlets reported was one of the most well attended in memory.

A news broadcast in Montana on Feb. 19, 2016 about a meeting to discuss refugee resettlement in Ravalli County.


“They pray five times a day. Are we going to have the mosque calling to prayer call in the Bitterroot?” another woman asked. “No!” the crowd replied.

Some Missoula residents agree with them. When Taylor went to the March 1 demonstration, she found 1,000 pro-refugee people at a park in downtown Missoula. But a few hundred people had turned out for an anti-refugee protest the month before.

Taylor joined a small group of counter demonstrators positioned behind the crowd, which had gathered to hear speakers on a stage. That’s when a young man from the pro-refugee camp starting standing a little bit too close, crowding Taylor and covering her sign with his. Taylor tried to shift out of the way, but he followed. The dance continued until Taylor started to get exasperated. Taylor’s friends were keeping a close watch. Several were packing.

“He was really quite obnoxious,” Taylor recalled. “I told him, ‘You really need to get out of my space because this is called free speech.’”

Before things could take a turn for the worse, one of the march organizers on the stage saw what was happening through the crowd and came running.

“I told him that’s not what we’re about, and that he needed to stop,” says Mary Poole, the founder of Soft Landing Missoula, the main pro-refugee group in the city.

And so Drew met Mary.

Both would come to realize that many people on the other side of the issue were sincere, passionate and had similar values. Mary would come to learn that Drew wasn’t motivated by “hate,” but by fear and traumatic memories that had left scars. Despite their differences, Drew would come to see Mary as someone to trust.

“What I did realize immediately at that rally was that I respected her. … And so, I became more interested in knowing about this person,” Taylor says.

It started with a bookclub.

They had a few things in common. Taylor grew up in a Navy town of about 38,000 across the Puget Sound from Seattle, and moved to Montana with her daughter in 2002 to be closer to family who had settleed in the area.

Poole, 35, also grew up in a small town. She spent some of her first years in southeastern Montana, but her family moved to Virginia when she was four and she grew up on a farm near the Shenandoah River in the Blue Ridge Mountains. From a young age, Poole was different from her peers. At 8, she won a Christmas card contest with a drawing that featured not the baby in a manger or Santa Claus, but an image of the Berlin Wall falling down.

By the time she was a teen, she looked the part of a “little skater kid."

"I became a punk rocker, in the middle of nowhere Virginia. The only one,” she says.

Poole moved back to Missoula 13 years ago. She makes a living selling jewelry while working from home so she can care for her 1-year-old son. Her husband Dan is a firefighter who often leaves home for weeks at a time to join crews battling wildfires across the west. Poole has long since lost the punk rocker look. She scheduled our first interview in the late afternoon, when she knew her son would be taking a nap. She kept a close eye on the baby monitor while we talked on her back porch.

It all started with a book club, a group of women — men were welcome to come but it just worked out that way — who got together every week to read and talk about money, finances and running small businesses. The conversations, always held over coffee or beer in someone’s living room, would occasionally drift to world affairs. The war in Syria came up a few times, but it stayed on the back burner — until the photos of Aylan Kurdi were published.

Kurdi was the 3-year-old Syrian boy who was found dead on a Turkish beach. His family had fled the war and was trying to reach Europe. The photos of his body in the sand drew the world’s attention to the refugee crisis, and made it real for Poole in a way it hadn’t before.

“Most of us are mothers and when those photos came out, it destroyed us. I mean we all just sat there sobbing… It just hit home. All those little tiny shoes on that beach, and that face down child, and I saw my son. I think we all did. I think the world did. It was a huge wakeup call and it started to evolve very quickly from there.”

The book club members became the first members of Soft Landing Missoula, a grassroots community effort to bring refugees to Montana. It was an SLM member who first contacted the IRC and asked them to consider opening an office there. SLM and Poole also proved instrumental in getting letters of support from the mayor, city council members and the county commission.

For the IRC’s Bob Johnson, Poole’s work was crucial. Johnson worked with the IRC to resettle Hmong refugees in Missoula in the 80s. He delayed his retirement to help re-open the office this year.

“It seems like there is a strong support base in Missoula that would be very useful. When you sit down with the mayor, talk to city council members and they are very supportive — that’s something we would normally have to do ourselves,” he says after a day of scoping out office spaces. “That very much impressed the State Department, because normally that doesn’t happen.”

They don’t agree on everything.

While Soft Landing Missoula made progress quickly, Poole says she was new to leadership and made mistakes at first. One was the initial name for that March 1 event, the one where she met Taylor. It was first called the “March Against Hate,” and while they tried to change the name to something more positive, the original label stuck.

The problem, as Poole would discover, was that throwing around words like “hate” could alienate people in Missoula who are skeptical of refugees but still willing to talk it though.

“It put us into a category that we spun around in for awhile … calling other people haters, calling other people racists, calling other people bigots. It put us into a category where people felt that they were being shut down, not listened to and not respected,” Poole says.

And Drew Taylor was part of why Poole shifted her approach to messaging. After their encounter at the protest, one of Taylor’s friends set up a meeting at a neighborhood dive bar. No one was converted, but the company was good. More meetings and conversations followed.

Poole stands facing Taylor with back to wooden cabinets
Mary Poole (left) and Drew Taylor talk in Poole’s kitchen on April 23. When they first met, they were on opposite sides of protests about bringing refugees to Montana.Jared Goyette

One of the things Poole learned about Taylor was what had driven her to be concerned about radical Islam in the first place. Taylor is a masculine-identifying lesbian and is gender non-conforming — while Taylor’s friends tend to use female pronouns like “she” or “her” to describe Taylor, Taylor prefers pronouns that capture both genders, like “s/he” but not “they.” Taylor is sensitive to ISIS' brutality toward gay people, such as a video they released last year allegedly showing ISIS members throwing a gay man off a tall building. And Taylor grew up in a violent household were gender-based violence was not uncommon, which colors how she sees violence today. Once, in downtown Seattle, Taylor stood between a drunk man and the woman he had just hit. 

After terrorists attacked Paris last November, Syrian refugees became a target of memes, videos and blog posts that spread rapidly on social media. But they were often factually inaccurate, stripped of context and depicted refugees as a roving mass of extremists bent on invading the west. Taylor remembers seeing one image of a woman who had allegedly been stoned to death for adultery, and she feared that same gender violence might be headed to Montana.

When Taylor joined the anti-refugee demonstration, she was not motivated by hate as much as she was by fear — fear that that refugees represented the kind of gender-based violence she witnessed as a child, or the kind of anti-gay bigotry she faces in her own life.

But after her conversations with Poole, Taylor began to rely less on her Facebook feed and do her own research.

“So I thought, OK, maybe there is something I don’t know, so I decided to go check it out,” Taylor says. “The things that I saw, people that were displaced, people that were just people like you and me, helped to inform my feelings that maybe they’re not all perpetrators, maybe they’re not all violent. Maybe they’re not all part of the radical jihad Islamization that they’re always talking about.”

Also: Trapped in Greece, these refugees wait, just before another frontier

Looking back, Taylor thinks social media had played an important role in how she came to view refugees as an existential threat:

“I think people in general are too quick to judge, myself included. Judgement and compassion are mutually exclusive. I’m very interested in compassion, but I got very wrapped up in judgement. Based on what I heard, what I saw, mainly because of the media. Fueled by the feeling of many other people.”

Despite being saturated with negative media about refugees and Muslims, there was one image Taylor hadn’t seen: the Kurdi photos. When she saw them the first time, her reaction was similar to the one that led Poole to start Soft Landing in the first place.

“When I see those photos, the first thing that comes to my mind is my grandchildren. And it’s very sad knowing that people have to try to escape, knowing that they might not live. And their children. That they have to put their children at risk,” says Taylor.

Wilmot Collins, who lives 100 miles away in Helena, Montana, is familiar with these risks. He and his wife fled Liberia in 1990, and were largely welcomed when they arrived as refugees, but at one point their home was vandalized with graffiti telling them to “go home to Africa" and just the letters “KKK.” The initial difficulties, he says, are long gone though — now they feel at home and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Collins expects new refugees might have a similar experience.

“People become defensive and they cling on to whatever information they can gather from wherever," says Collins. He thinks, however, that If those people get to know refugees, they might realize how wrong they've been.

More: When Wilmot Collins came to Montana, he was met by good people — and some racists.

Taylor and Poole talk on the phone or on Facebook just about every week. They still don’t see eye to eye on everything. Taylor is a still a Trump supporter and sees Obama as a traitor. When it comes to refugees, she’s still skeptical, but willing to wait until they arrive before judging them.

The IRC’s proposal to open an office in Missoula was approved by the State Department and the first refugee families should arrive in the city by the end of the year. The State Department works with resettlement agencies to determine which refugees are sent where, with family ties playing an important role. While it’s too early to say who will come to Missoula, IRC staff believe it’s likely that the first group of three families could be from Syria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the meantime, Taylor is glad she meet Poole and is able to call her a friend. The two recently caught up at a barbecue at Poole’s house. Taylor’s friends mingled with Soft Landing activists while children played in the living room. Plenty of elk burgers and beer were consumed. Taylor brought strawberry shortcake — with lots of butter, she emphasizes — and her favorite beer, an amber ale.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’m grateful that this whole issue came up so that I could meet Mary and we could have these conversations and discover that we were both great people. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can still be friends,” she says.

Poole has learned a lot from the experience as well.

“In the end, I’ve really come to see that it’s not about winning at all, because if you’re winning that implies that someone else is losing, and that’s not something that we’re interested in. We’re not interested in this being a losing game for anyone. We think that it needs to be a community effort. We need to put a lot of effort into making sure that it is a welcoming place, and that everybody feels like they can take a part in that if they want.”

For Poole, the get-together, elk burgers and all, was part of what makes Montana unique.

“I think it’s still a very neighborly place. I think that whatever views someone might have, if someone shows up on their doorstep, they are still going to welcome them in. I think that’s a very Western, Montana thing.”

She hasn’t had as much luck with the anti-refugee groups in the more rural parts of the state, though a religious group in Ravalli County recently asked her to speak at their meeting. She’s going to keep trying.

“They already know that Missoula is full of a bunch of liberal hippie nut cases. That’s the beauty of Missoula,” she says with a smile.

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