Mary Poole was scrolling through news stories on her smartphone while breastfeeding her infant son when her eyes locked onto a photograph that would transform her life — and the lives of many others.
She stared at the image of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, clad in a red shirt and blue shorts, lying on a Turkish beach. At first, it appeared to her as if he was on vacation with his family. Then she noticed he was face down, with his head toward the water. He was wearing shoes. And she grasped what she was seeing. He had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing the civil war engulfing his homeland.
Poole was overwhelmed by sadness. She thought of Alan’s parents, and she tried to imagine how painful it would be if she had to flee her home, her community in Missoula, Montana, and her country.
“It was gut-wrenching,” she recalled.
The next day, at a monthly gathering of her girlfriends, Poole described the profound effect the photo had on her. She and her friends agreed to contribute what they could to charities that help refugees, and when she got home, she donated $20 to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
As soon as she sent the money, it felt insufficient. She wished she could do more, and she voiced that sentiment to one of her friends, who suggested that they welcome refugee families to live in Missoula.
Poole, who had worked as an arborist before her pregnancy made it difficult to climb trees with a chainsaw, had no idea how to extend the invitation. She wasn’t familiar with the U.S. government’s refugee-resettlement process or the controversy surrounding the issue. She didn’t even know what qualified someone as a refugee.
That didn’t daunt her.
“Let’s give it a try,” she told her friends. “Let’s start to educate ourselves and figure out what it would take, and what the whole system is — and see if we can help.”
During her son’s naps, she opened her laptop to do research. She learned that refugees are not voluntary migrants, but people who have been forced to flee their home countries because of war, persecution, or natural disasters. She sought out experts and called them on the phone. She was determined to get Missoula to the top of a list of refugee host cities that she assumed was being compiled by the U.S. government.
“I was sure that there were these 10 boxes we’d have to check and we could make this happen,” she recalls. “I was absolutely sure that everyone who had seen that photo was scrambling to get refugees in their community, and scrambling to get to the top of the list.”
Eventually, she learned there was no list, and that Montana was one of just two states – Wyoming is the other – that had no cities participating in the State Department’s resettlement program. If refugees were to be brought to Missoula, the city would have to petition one of the nine resettlement agencies that work with the federal government to open an office in Montana, and that decision would have to be approved by bureaucrats in Washington.
Those discoveries would have led most people to abandon the quest. But Poole thought of the desperation of her fellow mothers in war-ravaged parts of Syria. “Part of me couldn’t move on,” she says.
The challenge of building support for refugees in Montana – Missoula, a small city of around 72,000, is surrounded by conservative, tradition-bound communities that dislike interference in their lives by the federal government – also did not dissuade her.
“Somebody needed to stand up” for people fleeing the Syrian civil war, Poole says.
Poole began by walking into the modest office of Missoula’s mayor, John Engen. She told him how the photo of Alan had moved her to act, what she had learned about refugees, and how the city could help. As she talked, Engen thought about his grandparents, who emigrated by boat from Norway and settled in North Dakota.
“For me, the American Dream isn’t a dream that’s exclusively retained for folks who happen to be born at the right time and the right place,” he says.
Engen concluded after his conversation with Poole that his city could play a role in helping some of the approximately 5 million Syrians who have left their country because of the war. “I think we have an obligation to other human beings, even if they don’t live within our city limits,” he says. “We can make a difference one life at a time.”
Poole didn’t stop with the mayor. She jawboned members of the city council and the Board of Missoula County Commissioners. She sat with the superintendent of schools to inquire about English-as-a-second-language classes. She met with community groups, churches, the local housing agency, and the health department — all in an effort to drum up a groundswell of support for welcoming refugees.
She approached everyone with deference. Instead of saying, “This is what we need to do,” she would begin by sharing what she had learned about refugee resettlement. She’d end with a question: “Do you think this is something we can do in our community?”
“Every single person we talked to said, ‘Of course. Of course, we can do this,’” she recalls.
At the same time she was reaching out to local leaders, she also contacted the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the resettlement agencies working with the federal government. She sought to play matchmaker, telling the organization how interested Missoula was in welcoming refugees, and she urged a meeting with local officials. It was a deft move, particularly for someone who had no previous experience trying to pull the levers of government.
Along the way, Poole decided to form a nonprofit organization that would focus on advocating for refugees and helping them once they arrived. She called it Soft Landing Missoula.
The community’s willingness to help – sparked largely by Poole – led the IRC to make a formal request of the State Department in early 2016 to make Missoula a host city. At Poole’s urging, the mayor, the city council, and Missoula County’s commissioners sent letters in support of the application.
The enthusiasm for bringing refugees to Missoula thrilled the IRC. Often, the group has to plead with cities to support resettlement within their borders. It was very rare for a community to put its hand up and ask the agency to send refugees its way.
“It was so heartening,” says Jen Barile, the IRC’s resettlement director in Montana. “We have a crisis, and Missoula responded with open arms.”
The letters to the State Department made local news. Soft Landing Missoula received calls and letters of support. It also got a slew of angry, nasty posts on its Facebook page, and even a few death threats.
One chilly winter morning, dozens of protesters gathered on the snowy sidewalk in front of the county courthouse to protest the settlement of refugees in the state. A half dozen speakers stood on a sidewalk cornerstone to argue that refugees from Syria and other Muslim-majority nations posed a grave threat to security in the United States.
It would be impossible, some of the speakers argued, to fully vet the refugees for ties to terrorist groups.
“This is an invasion,” one man said. “It’s a government-sponsored invasion.”
Poole was unperturbed. Most of the protesters were not Missoula residents; they hailed from rural communities outside the city. Instead of trying to confront them directly, she convened a pro-refugee rally the following month.
She drew almost 10 times more people than the opponents did. Holding candles and signs that read “Fear Is Our Foe” and “Montana Welcomes Muslims,” the throng marched through downtown Missoula and gathered at a park along the bank of the Clark Fork River.
A smattering of anti-refugee protesters joined the crowd at the park. When one of the pro-refugee marchers sought to block one of the opponent’s signs, Poole intervened.
“Hey, let’s offer these people the same courtesy and space we have,” she said. “They have every right to be here.”
Once she approached the protesters, she recognized some of them as people who had been posting anti-refugee comments on Soft Landing’s Facebook page. Instead of giving them a piece of her mind, she invited three of them to join her for a beer at a local microbrewery the next week.
She wasn’t seeking to convert them. She simply wanted to get to know them and understand why they were so opposed to the idea of welcoming refugees.
“It never became about convincing anyone to wholeheartedly agree that I was right and they were wrong,” she says. “Our work is to create a welcoming community for refugees in Missoula. If we can create a situation in which everyone feels comfortable to welcome people whether or not they fundamentally, politically believe in resettling refugees, then we’ve done our job. It’s that simple.”
Over brews, they discovered they have more in common than they expected. “Cussing and beer,” she says, and a love of kayaking, music, and the outdoors. They also share a belief in “compassion toward neighbors.”
A friendship was born. “A beautiful one,” she says, “that I keep to this day.”
The first refugees arrived in Missoula in August 2016 – less than a year after Poole saw the photo of Alan Kurdi. A family of five from the Congo. They had spent the previous 20 years living in a refugee camp.
Soon after they arrived, Poole took them to a farmers’ market in the city. The refugees spoke only Swahili. Poole didn’t speak a word of the language.
As they walked down the street, the family’s matriarch looked around, sighed, and said, “Missoula, Missoula.”
Poole looked at her and said, “Home.”
The woman smiled. “Missoula home,” she replied.
In most American cities, there aren’t volunteers who take new refugee arrivals to farmers’ markets. Resettlement organizations such as the IRC place refugees in apartments, provide them with a stipend for food and rent for between three and six months, help them obtain identification documents, enroll them in English classes, and assist adults in finding work. Each family is assigned a caseworker, but resettlement organizations don’t have the resources to help with the minutiae of adjusting to life in the United States. Refugees often have to figure it out on their own.
In many other cities, however, refugees can turn to other refugees for guidance and support. In Missoula, Poole realized, that wouldn’t be possible, at least not right away.
She decided that Soft Landing would fill the gap. The group offers driver-education classes and has even provided several families with used vehicles donated by Missoulians. Soft Landing gives the new arrivals a range of household goods and furniture, also provided by generous residents, as well as cold-weather clothes.
Poole also helps families with small but valuable tasks. To enable them to stretch their food stipends, she buys food online for them at cheaper prices than those at local supermarkets. She even procures green coffee beans for Eritrean families, who prefer to roast their coffee themselves, and has arranged a goat slaughter to commemorate Easter.
“It’s all of these little pieces that create a welcoming community,” she says.
More than 600 Missoula residents have signed up to volunteer with Soft Landing – far more than the group needs. Instead of turning away the assistance, Soft Landing has connected 30 of them with the local public-school system. As a result, every student learning English in the system, whether a refugee or not, now gets daily, one-on-one tutoring.
“Missoulians have come together to open their hands, hearts and homes,” she says. “The outpouring of support has been overwhelming.”
As ISIS fighters neared his farming village in northeastern Syria in May 2014, Jaber Abdullah fled for neighboring Turkey with his wife, his 20-day-old son, and his brother.
He planned to head back home when the civil war in his homeland subsided.
But as the fighting dragged on, his family found itself in a precarious position. They didn’t have permission to live in Turkey legally, placing them at risk for deportation back to Syria and barring Abdullah from getting a decent job to provide for his family. So, grudgingly, he applied for resettlement with the UN refugee agency.
He expected to be sent to a European nation, as many other Syrians in Turkey had been. Instead, he was informed six months later that he and his family would be among 10,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the United States, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Then, three days before they were to fly out, he was told that they would have a different home: Missoula.
“I was a bit scared,” he says. “I had never heard of Missoula.”
He worried that there wouldn’t be any other Syrians in Montana. And he wondered if anyone there would speak Arabic.
Those fears were assuaged a few days after he and his family arrived in January 2017. The lack of a large Arabic-speaking population was compensated for by the welcome they received from Soft Landing volunteers, who offered to teach him and his wife, Heba, how to speak English. The volunteers explained how the bus system worked, furnished the family’s apartment and took them shopping for food. “The residents of Missoula are the reason we love Missoula,” Abdullah says with a grin.
Poole set him up in her old line of work – as an arborist – and he now brings home a paycheck that covers rent, utilities, and groceries. In his first six months in America, he has traded smoking for vaping, acquired a Montana driver’s license, and picked up enough English slang to navigate his new city. He spends his evenings in a cozy, two-bedroom apartment, devouring Syrian food dished up by Heba and playing with his growing family: The newborn who fled Syria, Jan, is now 3, and he has a 9-month-old brother, Ivan.
One day a few months after they arrived, Poole knocked on their door with good news. No longer would Abdullah have to ride a bike to work in the winter chill. She had a donated minivan for the family.
“I didn’t expect this help from volunteers,” he says. “Mary Poole made us very happy.”
Although Abdullah still harbors dreams of returning to Syria, he has fallen in love with his new city.
“The people I have met here have become like family,” he says. “I feel like I’m at home.”
More than 30 refugee families are now living in Missoula. They hail from Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, and Syria.
None of them would be in Montana if not for Poole.
“Mary was the right person at the right time with the right idea and the energy to make it happen,” Engen says.
Between running Soft Landing and caring for her two young children – she had a daughter over the summer – Poole isn’t always able to greet families as soon as they arrive. But the news of each refugee’s landing at the city’s airport fills her heart with a little more joy.
Recently, when she spotted a newly arrived family walking down the street, she rolled down her car window and stopped to shout hello. The family was flummoxed. “They’re like, ‘Hi, crazy white person waving at us,’” she laughs.
Even though she won over local leaders and has hundreds of supporters in the city, Poole still accepts every request to speak to community groups about her work. She patiently explains who refugees are and the process for resettling some of them in the United States. Sometimes, the crowd nods in agreement. Sometimes, heated arguments break out. She never raises her voice or tries to silence critics.
“Everyone,” she says, “deserves to have their voice heard.”
For Poole, that attitude extends even to those who post pointed critiques on Soft Landing’s Facebook page – people such as John Barber, a Navy veteran, who asked how refugees brought to the city would be vetted. How would they learn English? Would they be employable?
Then he typed out a few comments on his own Facebook page. He described those trying to bring refugees to Missoula as “liberal hacks doing some feel good stuff.”
Poole invited Barber to join her for a cup of coffee. Their conversation sparked an unexpected friendship – and a subsequent meeting for lunch at the Old Post, a local institution, where they sat under the stuffed head of a moose.
Barber began by telling Poole that a Congolese refugee family had moved in beside him and his wife.
“Those folks next door,” he told her, “got the cutest kids ever.”
He said his new neighbors had brought over a basket of food. In return, his wife baked them a loaf of bread, and he went over to shake the husband’s hand.
Before the Congolese family had arrived, the house was occupied by a man who, Barber believed, used illegal drugs. “These people are such a refreshing change,” he said.
He had been reading about strife in the Congo on the Internet. “Golly, just to come out of that alive is pretty much of a success story,” he said.
As their conversation continued, he mentioned that he still worried that other refugee families that hail from Muslim nations could pose a security threat in Missoula. “I haven’t changed my mind on a lot of things,” he admitted.
Poole noted that many refugee families from Iraq and Syria are “just fleeing the exact same thing” – ISIS – “that we are also struggling with in our own way.”
By the end of the meal, Barber and Poole weren’t in wholehearted agreement, but their differences had narrowed. “I think you’re a very reasonable person,” he told her as he got up from the table.
Walking out of the restaurant into a bright summer afternoon, Poole gazed down the street of her hometown and thought about the two years since she had seen the photo of Alan Kurdi.
“Our community has so much to gain from opening our arms and hearts to people from around the world,” she says. “Everything I’ve done – it wasn’t based on winning a political battle. It wasn’t based on anything larger than, ‘Can we help a couple of people?’”