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Exploring the possibility of welcoming Syrian refugees to Helena

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I’ve got a serious What If question. I’ll get to it in a moment, but first consider these facts and figures. According to experts, the civil war in Syria is the most serious humanitarian crisis on the planet. It’s getting worse by the day, especially for civilian families, forced to dodge the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and Western coalition airstrikes alike, and then confronted with government troops and anti-government militias and Islamic jihadists of varying stripes, loyalties and bad behaviors. The civil war has caused nearly 8 million to be internally displaced Their lives have been ransacked.

About 210,000 Syrians have been killed thus far, and more than a million have been wounded. More than 4 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries. There are huge camps in Jordan and Turkey; in Lebanon, almost a million (equal to a third of the country’s population) are enduring overcrowded conditions in carved out living spaces between Lebanese homes and businesses. Lots of countries outside the Middle East have taken in families and individuals fleeing this conflict. Sweden, for example, has accepted more than 14,000. While the United States has provided more than $1 billion so far in humanitarian relief, this country has accepted fewer than 1,000 Syrians since the war began in 2011. That’s changing: Last December the U.S. State Department announced a plan to allow up to 10,000. That’s still a small number, but it’s a significant change.

What if Montana had a program to take in a select few of these folks? What if a coalition of nonprofits and volunteers worked with federal and state agencies to establish an immigrant and refugee resettlement entity of our own? What if, over the course of the next few years, the residents of Helena and other communities in Montana were to encounter a Syrian-owned and operated restaurant, bakery, medical clinic or some other small business in their midst? I believe that would be a good thing.

The United States is proud of its tradition of welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Embracing foreign immigrants is part of Montana’s history too. In the first half of the 20th century, Butte was probably the most culturally diverse city in the Rocky Mountain West. People came from all over the world to work in and around the mines. Today, Butte enjoys many legacies of that period. Let’s not forget the small scale resettlement programs for Hmong and Tibetan refugees in Missoula and the Helena diocese’s harboring of Cuban child refugees in the 1950s. We can do this, and do it well, for our own benefit.

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Montana as a whole has perhaps the least diverse population in the United States, with fewer foreign born citizens per capita than any other state. At the same time, our state is one of the fastest aging. That’s going to be a problem in the decades ahead, as we are going to demand more health care services. New businesses are going to need educated and skilled workers. These demographic patterns are occurring just as we are entering a period of entrepreneurial dynamism and related prosperity in Montana. We are going to have to import relatively young workers. What if we brought some in from Syria?

Many of the poor Syrians who are displaced by the war are not impoverished -- they are doctors, teachers, engineers, business owners. We know that the vast majority of refugees in any conflict zone only want to return to their homes and livelihoods and to coexist with their friends and neighbors in peace. But some don’t want to go back, and others simply cannot, for fear of persecution. They would relish the opportunity to re-establish a normal life. Why not here?

I know there are people who will be skeptical about this proposition. They will worry about the risks of opening our doors to anyone from the Middle East. They might think it’s just fine to have a remarkably homogeneous population. They might figure that Montana would not be a good fit for Syrians, culturally or otherwise. Looking at the experience of other jurisdictions in the West, the risks and costs of ushering in carefully vetted refugees can be managed and mitigated. Foreign Service professionals have effective means of filtering out malcontents and miscreants. According to a State Department brief, ”refugees are subject to an intense security screening process involving federal intelligence, law enforcement, defense, and homeland security agencies.”

Our landscape is well suited to just about anyone from anywhere, really. People adapt. It might be impractical to start with Syrian Muslims. Unlike Detroit and San Diego, which both have sizeable Syrian expatriate communities, we don’t have mosques or halal markets. No matter, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians and others who will qualify as refugees.

What if we got together, in our own best interest and with a common will to help people in desperate need, and put together a Syrian refugee resettlement effort in the capital city? It will take a nonpartisan, interfaith, public-private partnership to pull this off. It will require diligence and patience. But there are dedicated human and financial resources available for refugee resettlement. Let’s use them.

As Vice President of the volunteer board of directors at WorldMontana, I am scoping out the feasibility of adding refugee resettlement to our portfolio of services. If you are interested in this endeavor, please contact me at Stephen@worldmontana.org, or send a note to WorldMontana, Carroll College Artaza Center, 1601 N. Benton Ave., Helena, MT 59625.

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Paul Nachman (PNBL48@hotmail.com) is a retired physicist and a founding member of Montanans for Immigration Law Enforcement (www.montanamile.org). He also volunteers in a research group at MSU in Bozeman.

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