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More Voices From Missoula 'Rally Against Fear And Hate'

Two of the estimated 800-plus who turned out for a March 1, 2016 rally in Missoula in support of refugee resettlement.
Josh Burnham
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Two of the estimated 800-plus Missoulians who turned out for Tuesday's event.

The national debate over Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S. has struck a nerve in Montana. It’s been playing out over the past month as rallies both for and against the potential resettlement of refugees in the state have been trading off locations and attempting to out voice one another.Across the state on Tuesday people gathered to demonstrate their openness to welcoming refugee populations in Montana. Events were held in Missoula, Helena, Billings, Kalispell and Bozeman. 

Betsy Mulligan-Dague from the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center helped kick off the event.

“Today we are hundreds. Hundreds standing together all across Montana," she said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Around 800 Missoulians answered a call for a day of action on Tuesday, branded a “Stand Against Violence Fear and Hate.” Participants marched several city blocks before rallying at a local park. There, a sea of candles and earnest signs saying Montana’s borders were open for refugees filled the public space.

To make his point, Eamon Ormseth’s penned his sign in Arabic as well.

“My signs say refugees and Muslims welcome," Ormseth said. "This rally is countering some of the hateful narratives we’ve seen in our country around refugees and Islam. They have been conflated.”

One of the many signs at a refugee rally in Missoula last year.
Credit Josh Burnham
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One of the many signs at Tuesday's refugee rally in Missoula.

Soft Landing, a Missoula-based organization, helped organize the event. A series of speakers including Missoula’s mayor, John Engen and interfaith leaders rallied the crowd with messages of acceptance.

Soft Landing and a counterpart organization in Helena have been working for several months with the International Rescue Committee to establish a refugee resettlement office in Missoula. Montana and Wyoming are the only two states without such an office.

In early February, an event branding itself the American Security Rally mobilized hundreds in Missoula to speak out against efforts to bring refugees here. Similar events followed in Hamilton and Helena.

Clinton Rusthoven is becoming a permanent fixture at these events. He just joined a nascent group called Montanan Citizens Against Refugee Resettlement that he said is building a Facebook following. He was one of only a handful of counter-protesters Tuesday in Missoula.

“We are basically for helping  Americans first,” Rusthoven said, "and we realize we have laws, immigration laws, that need to be enforced."

Mary Poole is the head of Soft Landings. She said her group recognizes that those like Rusthoven are not comfortable with the idea of bringing in a new population.

“I think that there are some very valid concerns, and some very important conversations to have.," Poole said. "Unfortunately, a lot of the information people are getting has been sensationalized in some way."

Poole says that even if her group is successful in establishing a refugee resettlement office in Missoula, it would likely be a lengthy wait before anyone could actually be resettled here.

"Currently it's highly unlikely. So, at least initially it's unlikely we'd see Syrian refugees. There's not enough in the vetting system that have made it through yet," Poole said. "And there's other locations in the U.S. that already have Syrian people there that have a little bit more infrastructure."

Poole says an application has been filed with the State Department to establish a resettlement office in Missoula. As of now, it’s unclear when the application will be processed.

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