How two US towns have countered Donald Trump′s refugee policy | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 18.09.2018
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How two US towns have countered Donald Trump's refugee policy

In a split-screen reality, as the Trump administration continues to slash the number of refugees admitted to the US, two Montana communities have gone the opposite way. One of them elected a former refugee as mayor.

One year after Americans voted Donald Trump into the White House on an anti-immigrant platform in 2016, the citizens of Montana's capital, Helena, elected a former refugee from Liberia as their mayor. In his first run for elected office, Wilmot Collins, a 54-year old child protection specialist, defeated a four-time incumbent to become the first black mayor in the history of the state.

Collins' election made global headlines and was arguably the most visible expression of an openness to refugees in a place where one might not necessarily expect it. Montana is one of the largest US states by area, but also one of the least populated. It is predominantly white and overwhelmingly backed Trump in the presidential election.

But neither his background as a former refugee nor the color of his skin played a role in the election campaign, Collins said in an interview at his office in downtown Helena. What mattered, he noted repeatedly, was that he has been an active and respected member of the community ever since he arrived from Liberia in 1994.

Wilmot Collins (DW/M. Knigge)

Wilmot Collins' mantra: 'Get involved and speak up'

Looking for survival

Collins routinely gives talks in local schools about Africa, sings in a church choir and coaches soccer. And to finance a college degree, Collins even served in the US Navy Reserve, though he initially could not fire a gun because the sound would trigger flashbacks of the carnage he witnessed in Liberia.

His behavior showed his neighbors and friends in Helena that Collins was all in for the community. So when he decided to run for office, spurred by former President Barack Obama's appeal for Americans to get involved, it wasn't much of a leap for residents to support him.

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Based on his own experience, Collins' mantra to refugees in Montana and in talks across the country is simple, he said: Get involved and speak up.

"We fled our native land because we were looking for survival," he said. "Now the mistake some of us are making is that, now that we are surviving, we are content. But that should not be the end of your story. The end of your story should be when you say, this is the end."

'Tell your story'

Collins, who admitted that he repeatedly shelved plans to run for office because he felt he wasn't ready, understands that getting involved in a local community is a huge challenge for newly arrived refugees who come from a foreign culture and speak a foreign language. But he is adamant that refugees have no choice, especially amid the current anti-refugee sentiment coming out of Washington.   

"Because if you are not getting out of your comfort zone, do you know who is telling your story? The people who don't know you," he said.

While Collins' election might serve as Montana's most public counterpoint to the Trump administration's policy of clamping down on refugees, it is not the entire story.

Mary Poole (DW/M. Knigge)

Mary Poole wanted to do more than donate to charity

Missoula mothers take action

The other part of the story begins in September 2015 in Missoula, a city a 90-minute drive away from Helena. A group of mothers there saw the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 2-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. They wanted to do something more concrete than donate to charity. After some research they approached the city of Missoula and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of nine organizations tasked by the US government to resettle refugees, to see whether the IRC could reopen an office in Missoula and resettle refugees there.

In the 1970s and 1980s, refugees from Laos had been resettled in the city. But since then Montana had become one of only two states not participating in the US refugee resettlement program. Trump's anti-refugee rhetoric compounded the situation, making lobbying to bring in refugees to this Montana community an uncertain proposition.

But it worked, said Mary Poole, one of the mothers who advocated bringing refugees to Missoula. Because once informed about details of the program, the local community of some 70,000 residents was fully behind the effort. In fact, local support was so high that after more than 200 people signed up as volunteers to help the first refugee families, the IRC and Soft Landing, the nonprofit refugee aid group launched by Poole and others, had to start a waiting list.

Cold winter

Joel Kambale was one of the first refugees to arrive in Missoula two years ago. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he spent 20 years in refugee camps in Tanzania before being chosen for resettlement to the US with his wife and three children.

Aside from the new language, the weather initially was a huge hurdle for the family, said Kambale. "I came in September and the winter starts in October, so the first one was a big challenge for us. It was very cold."

But the family adapted quickly to the new environment and the new language. Soon Kambale's English was so good that he began to serve as the IRC's translator and assists other Congolese refugees.

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Joel Kambale (DW/M. Knigge)

Joel Kambale came to Missoula after spending 20 years in refugee camps

"I found this a good place," he said about his new life in Missoula in an interview at the local IRC office, "because now my kids can go to school. I have a nice home and a job and there are good people in Missoula. I have been helped a lot. Missoula is a wonderful place."

Asked about the Trump administration's slashing of the number of refugees allowed into the US, Kambale said: "I don't feel good about that. When he says that refugees should stop coming to the US, I am not happy, because there are many people suffering in the refugee camps in Africa."     

He explained refugees like himself come to the US for one reason only: to escape the violence and terror in their home countries.

'We are breathing'

"When we are here we are breathing," said Kambale. "We are like someone from prison. Just imagine someone who has come out of the prison. How do they feel? That's how refugees feel when they are here in the USA."

But the Trump administration's recently announced plans to slash the number of resettled refugees to a historic low of 30,000 next year could put Missoula's successful refugee resettlement program in peril. Last year, the Trump administration, after reducing the number of refugee resettlements from 80,000 under Obama to 45,000, required resettlement agencies like the IRC to close all locations resettling less than 100 refugees.   

Jen Barile (DW/M. Knigge)

Jen Barile hopes she can continue her work in Montana

In the current fiscal year, which runs until the end of September, the small IRC office in Missoula resettled 115 refugees, just above the threshold set by the government, according to its director Jen Barile.

She hopes to be able to continue her work, she said, but "I don't have any information on how the recent news will affect our office locally."

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said he was "saddened" to hear about the Trump administration's latest cuts to the refugee program. But keeping true to his mantra of community activism, he quickly offered a solution:  

"Our recourse is to make sure that we vote in the midterms and continue to fully participate in the civic processes. Getting involved and voting."

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