Hymns echoed from the bottom floor of Missoula Alliance Church Sunday, Oct 6. To the rhythm of a drum and keyboard, Deborah Nyota led a congregation through two songs of worship.
“Ni wewe bwana,” she sang in Swahili, with its English translation, “It is you, Lord,” projected on a screen behind her.
Nyota and the several dozen Congolese worshipers joined her, making up only a portion of the more than 300 refugees resettled in Missoula since 2016 through the city’s International Rescue Committee office.
Those resettled in Missoula are part of a global population of refugees that swelled to nearly 71 million by the end of 2018, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Despite the world’s largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, the United States has lost its position as the leader in refugee resettlement in the past two years.
On Sept. 30, the Trump administration announced it will place a cap on refugees resettling in the United States at 18,000 in 2020, down from 30,000 in 2019. This has caused uncertainty for the future of both refugees waiting for entry into the U.S. and the organizations who aid them.
“We’re really disappointed in yet another cut to those permitted to resettle,” said Jen Barile, the resettlement director with the International Rescue Committee’s office in Missoula. “This is a life-saving program, and many of those now living in Missoula are still waiting to reunite with family. Their sons, daughters, mothers and fathers are still waiting in refugee camps.”
Missoula’s IRC office is one of nine organizations that resettle refugees in the U.S. According to a new policy set by the current president’s administration, the office must resettle at least 100 refugees a year to continue its operation. Barile said she’s confident that Missoula will maintain that standard but worries that the drastic drop in incoming refugees will shutter offices in larger cities.
A memo released by President Donald Trump justified the reduction with the claim that asylum-seekers at the southern border of the U.S. and refugees from abroad all draw from the same federal resources. Cutting the number of resettled refugees allows federal agencies to focus on processing asylum applications submitted in the U.S. and at its border with Mexico.
Prior to the announcement of the drop to 18,000 admitted refugees, the administration reportedly considered cutting the number to zero in July.
“Our response can’t be, ‘Well at least it’s not zero,’” said Mary Poole, the executive director of Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit that works in coordination with the IRC to aid incoming refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the resettlement process.
Those who now call Missoula home have entered into its public schools and entered into its workforce. Ammar Omar and Wisam Raheem, from Iraq, run a food truck offering Arabian cuisine inspired by the food they grew up with.
According to Poole, the U.S. resettled an average of 95,000 refugees a year since Congress launched the nation’s first resettlement program in 1980. That changed in 2017, with 33,000 resettlements.
Poole, along with 400 other state and local officials, called on the president to raise the cap back to its historic average.
“I think, in this country, we’ve seen a systematic dismantling of the resettlement system in the past few years. That leaves everyone uncertain, both the IRC and the millions fleeing violence around the world,” she said.
According to the U.N., one in every 108 people globally is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.
During a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, the president announced that 5,000 of the 18,000 allowed to resettle would be reserved for those fleeing religious persecution.
“The point that Trump was making was I think an important one in terms of this religious aspect, but it’s just one piece of a much broader issue,” said Gillian Glaes, a board member of Soft Landing Missoula and visiting history professor at the University of Montana.
Other factors contributing to the crisis include persecution for political allegiance and sexual orientation, along with victims of natural disasters and climate change.
As the state’s only city supporting resettlement, Missoula has a history of being a home for refugees. Starting in the late 1970s, over 600 displaced Hmong left their war-torn homes in the Laotian highlands and made their way to the Garden City. Refugees from Belarus arrived in the decades following the dissolution of the USSR.
Although she didn’t realize their circumstances at the time, Glaes had classmates from both countries.
“This country has a pretty troubling history, going back to the interwar period of World War II. Then, the quota of Jewish refugees allowed into the country sat at 25,000 for that entire time,” Glaes said.
“For the U.S. to turn its back on this crisis at the moment is unfathomable … As a historian, I would hate for this to be a moment where we look back and ask,‘Why didn’t they do more?’”