At the shore of the Clark Fork adjacent to the International Rescue Committee, Montana’s only refugee resettlement agency, I watched as siblings tossed rocks into the river — little brother, finding the boulders that’ll make the most exciting splashes; big sister, advising him in Arabic to be careful and handing me her jean jacket. Inside, their mom was absorbing a slew of information, from how to get a job to American housekeeping, in her first cultural orientation session.
As I told of my time with these children — Montana’s first Syrian arrivals after President Trump’s travel ban — as well as the Congolese, Eritrean and Iraqi refugees I’ve interacted with as part of my internship at the IRC, I was met by different reactions culminating in a single message: “They’re just like us!”
Our common humanity shouldn’t come as a shock, yet when a xenophobic rhetoric conditions us to label immigrants as other and undeserved, it’s a revelation.
The privileges of my American experience depend on factors outside my control: my whiteness, my economic class and an advantage many don’t acknowledge — my citizenship. You might disagree, believing this is cause for superior claim to employment, shelter or a sense of safety. Indeed, we’re told there’s not enough to go around and anyone coming in plans on taking, not creating. This is how humanitarian crises turn into partisan issues and children become hostages. But who can look at the photo of an asylum seeker and his 2-year-old daughter dead on the bank of the Rio Grande and accept the status quo?
Most clients resettled by the IRC are single moms and families risking everything for their children’s well-being.
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So as more reports of inhumane conditions at child-holding facilities — soiled mats and flu-ridden 7-year-olds caring for infants — rolled in weeks before our beloved July 4, I felt detached from my vision of America as a place that welcomes the world’s most vulnerable.
The conceptual American dream that success is available to all who want it has been abstracted beyond repair. Yet with Missoula’s refugees, it becomes tangible. It’s reincarnated in a woman’s joy upon realizing she’s one step closer to becoming a nurse. I witness it in teenage refugees hiking the M and families showing photo albums from home. It’s alive in a church launched by Congolese refugee and IRC interpreter Joel Kambale. And the American dream is represented in our differences — because while we share a common humanity, many of Missoula’s refugees speak a different tongue, wear different clothes and carry different experiences. But the United States’ strength has never been its homogeneity.
These interactions, coupled with Missoulians’ efforts to welcome refugees and the support of local businesses, provide a silver lining. Our community is a microcosm of hope that proves America’s humanitarian core is not lost, and my patriotic heart beats on.
Still, Trump’s refugee cap is a record low of 30,000 even though the number of global refugees is higher than ever. Time spent in a refugee camp, entrapped within 10 kilometers in tents as homes, ranges between months and decades. Even being granted refugee status is a drawn-out, intensive process. And those asylum-seekers who don’t have access to refugee camps or cannot afford to wait any longer are demonized for “thwarting the system.”
While the International Rescue Committee aims to make refugees’ transition as smooth as possible, the obstacles they face prove America is not all milk and honey. It never was. But as they carve out spaces for themselves, refugees and asylum seekers revitalize the American narrative. Because really, who can tell the story of modern America better than those yearning to breathe free?