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Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War wound down and soldiers who survived it returned home. More than 36,000 Montanans served in the war. For the 50th anniversary of its end, students at the University of Montana School of Journalism spoke with Vietnam vets across the state. Here are their stories.

Missoula’s International Rescue Committee’s origins began with Hmong refugees of the Vietnam War

A mother with her children at a refugee camp in Thailand. The International Rescue Committee works with the federal government's office of refugee resettlement in 29 U.S. cities, with the IRC's smallest office being housed in Missoula, Montana.
UN Photo/John Isaac/UN Photo/John Isaac
A mother with her children at a refugee camp in Thailand. The International Rescue Committee works with the federal government's office of refugee resettlement in 29 U.S. cities, with the IRC's smallest office being housed in Missoula, Montana.

In the United States, there are only 10 organizations that officially work with the federal government’s office of refugee of resettlement. One of them is the International Rescue Committee – which has offices in only 29 U.S. cities. The smallest city with an IRC is Missoula, Montana. It all started because of a connection to the American war in Vietnam, which wound down 50 years ago.

Pam Roberts grew up in southeastern Montana, but she always had international aspirations. In the 1970s, she moved to Thailand to work with refugees from the Vietnam War. She knocked on the door of the IRC offices in Thailand and offered to volunteer. She had no idea then that she would direct the first refugee resettlement agency in Montana and help bring hundreds of refugees from Southeast Asia to her home state. The early days at the refugee camp were overwhelming.

"First day, it was really hard. There was a family and it was a young man and he had two children and his mother-in-law. And they started with nine people. And they were all killed in the process and they were the only ones that made it over. And I just cannot let that go ever. It's just ingrained in my mind," said Roberts.

The refugees were mostly Hmong, an ethnic group living in the mountains of Laos that allied with the United States during the Vietnam War. When American forces left Southeast Asia, it became especially dangerous for the Hmong. It's been estimated that more than 10% of the Hmong community died in the 1960s and seventies. Towns were bombed. Men died in battle, and families made the difficult journey to refugee camps.

"The Hmong community was just completely decimated. I mean, we had the remains that came over. And many of them came over, uh, across the Mekong and they would tie, you know, themselves to bamboo and then they would kick their way over because no one swam. So, I would go out early in the morning with, um, like this little tuk-tuk thing, and we would pick up refugees that came across," said Roberts.

Life at the refugee camp was also hard. There was not enough food and medical supplies. Explosions and gunshots thundered across the jungle. The Hmong needed a safe, permanent home.

"One day I was having lunch in this little warung and somebody said, I hear they're going to a place called 'Hmongtana,'" Roberts said.

"Well, I mean, it really boils down to Jerry Daniels when you get right to it, right?" said Johnson.

Bob Johnson, ran the International Rescue Committee in Seattle and helped establish the Missoula office. He worked closely with Jerry Daniels, who has been called the godfather of Hmong resettlement. Daniels grew up outside of Missoula and was a smokejumper before he flew planes into Laos for the CIA. He helped thousands of Hmong escape the war, first to Thailand and later to the United States, before he died in 1982. Many early Hmong immigrants settled in the Bitterroot Valley, near the Daniels family.

 Bob Johnson ran the IRC office in Seattle, Washington, and was critical in the establishment of Missoula's IRC office.
Bob Johnson ran the IRC office in Seattle, Washington, and was critical in the establishment of Missoula's IRC office.

"And so, we basically figured, well, we could get up a small operation using Jerry's mother as a contact, um, eventually establishing the office and you know, hiring staff. Essentially that's what happened," said Johnson.

The office would become Missoula's first IRC and Pam Roberts would become its first director as a local Montanan. Her main role was to teach the community about the Hmong.

"I tried to educate people about who they were. That's mainly what I did, actually," said Roberts.

Roberts remembered some dissent, but she said the reception was overall positive, and many people wanted to help.

"Just regular individual people stepped out of their role as a teacher or whatever, and they taught English as a second language, and they helped people find lodging, and they became friends to these people, and they taught them through friendship," Roberts said.

More than 550 Hmong refugees moved to Missoula and surrounding areas over the next decade in the wave. Hmong resettlement ebbed and the Missoula IRC office closed in 1991. Fast forward 25 years and a group of local volunteers began advocating for the city to reopen its doors to refugees. Mary Poole led the initiative, which eventually became the IRC Missoula knows today.

Mary Poole was a key advocate for the reopening of Missoula's IRC office following its closure in 1991.
Mary Poole was a key advocate for the reopening of Missoula's IRC office following its closure in 1991.

"Our late mayor, John Engen, went to school with Hmong refugees, like grew up alongside Hmong refugees. Our, the superintendent of the schools at that time did his first year of student teaching with refugee students in his class. So, like everybody had these touch points, but nobody kind of knew any of the details at all," said Poole.

Bob Johnson helped Poole collect the necessary letters of support from city and county officials and advocate for the re-opening.

"And I think the fact that that early Hmong population that had been resettled in Missoula along with the Eastern Europeans, uh, helped to grease the skids. You know, people were already familiar. It wasn't a strange thing. I was kind of surprised by the lack of opposition, frankly," said Johnson.

The IRC re-opened its Missoula office and in August of 2016, the first family arrived from the Congo. Others followed from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Missoula has changed a lot since 1979, but it remains one of the smallest cities in the country to host a resettlement agency. Mary Poole now directs a nonprofit called Soft Landing that works closely with the IRC to help families settle in Missoula. Refugees are free to move to other towns and cities in the U.S.

"But for the most part, most people have stayed because they feel so welcome here. It makes me feel like I live in an awesome place that makes up for its shortcomings by the amazing community and generosity of people here," said Poole.

The IRC has helped resettle around 800 refugees, including over 60 refugees this year.

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